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On the Hot Seat

Workforce training can succeed when employers pitch in

Nancy Snyder is chief executive of Commonwealth Corp. Nancy Snyder is chief executive of Commonwealth Corp. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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Nancy Snyder is chief executive of Commonwealth Corp., the state’s quasi-public workforce development agency. She recently spoke with the Globe’s Robert Gavin.

Does workforce training work?

Workforce training has to be designed in partnership with employers to make sure we’re training people in the skills they need, and that the jobs are actually in demand. When we’re able to do that, workforce training works.

What are some industries you’re focusing on these days?

There’s still a big emphasis on health care. We’re doing some work in manufacturing — technical training for precision machining. We’re doing work in biotech.

One of the criticisms of workforce training is that people come out with these great certificates, but in fields in which there are few jobs.

Training is an investment of time and money, so you want to make sure you’re doing it wisely. Make sure there are actually jobs in that field. Interview the place doing the training and ask about their track record placing people.

Where can you find opportunities for training?

There’s the state website, www.detma.org. Community colleges continue to be a good source; a lot of vocational-technical schools have programs in the evenings for adults. State career centers can be a real resource in getting advice.

A lot of people needing training are unemployed or struggling financially. How do they pay for it?

They may be eligible for a subsidy. Career centers have vouchers for people who meet certain guidelines. If you’re unemployed, you may also be eligible for a Pell grant. If you’re going to a community college, ask about financial aid. People who are unemployed are probably eligible for some financial aid.

We hear about people who spend thousand of dollars on training, only to end up without a job and deeply in debt. What advice can you give?

Do your homework. With any training organization, it’s important to ask what the completion rate of the program is, how many people actually graduate with a certificate, and what the job placement rate is. You may want to get that in writing.

What should employers do?

Communicate what skills people need to succeed. Reach out to programs and work with them on curriculum. Offer internships. One tricky thing these days is that employers aren’t doing the planning to ensure that they’ve got skilled workers in the pipeline to replace the baby boomers, who will inevitably retire. Many are jobs that it takes five to ten years to prepare for. Employers need to think a lot more about workforce planning.

What’s the future of workforce development, given federal deficits and state budget shortfalls?

Massachusetts has one of the highest-skilled economies in the world, and it’s incumbent to make sure we have pathways for everybody to get the skills and credentials to connect to this highly skilled economy. So there will continue to be workforce development. The question is, what form does it take?

What do you think needs to be improved?

Workforce development in the last 20 years operated in a period of labor shortages. We could be a lot more passive, because you could find a job. We’re now in a period of labor surplus. Workforce development professionals need to really understand the labor market and have deep, effective relationships with employers. We need to provide people with more customized job searches than historically we’ve been able to do.

How do you determine which industries will have jobs?

The best way is to talk to employers about their hiring plans. And I’m not talking about a survey. You go out, you meet with them. Then you have a feel about what the hiring is going to be like in your region and you can guide people appropriately.

What do you think the job market is going to be like in a year?

It’s really hard to predict, with everything going on in the world.

What’s your advice for people out there looking for a job?

I’ve seen a lot of help wanted signs in the last month or two. That tells me the economy is coming back. It’s important for people to stay focused and flexible in their search, because I think there are opportunities now to find jobs.