Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Strengthening our workforce

Sometimes, social research does have ready answers. Editorial writers asked whether anyone knows how to provide our labor force with the education and training it needs. Ellen Shelton responded, “Yes,” in her OpEd, "Work force training tactics show results."

Five years of study by Wilder Research, for the McKnight Foundation, showed that training programs, with certain features, can improve the skills of low-wage workers and even enable them to increase their wages.

For optimal effectiveness, programs should meet both employer and worker needs. This capitalizes on the motivation of both parties to do something that is relevant to business needs and that actually works for the individuals involved.

Programs must be accessible. Transportation, child care, equipment may have to be provided to trainees, who often cannot afford to provide this for themselves.

Problem-solving and communication skills should be included in training programs. Throughout society in general, achievements occur through partnerships; the workplace is no exception. The workforce of tomorrow needs teamwork skills.

Building an economically productive workforce requires more than this, of course. Admittedly, training programs with these features may not meet all the needs we have, but they will help to strengthen the skills of one large portion of the workforce.

If we stimulate economic development on the one hand, and get our labor force into optimal condition on the other hand, we will build economically thriving communities.

(More about this study of the McKnight Families Forward program appears on the Wilder Research web site and the Governor’s Workforce Development Council web site. The OpEd appears in the Pioneer Press.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

What is truth?

Actually, I don’t plan to answer this question, which philosophers have often pondered. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask “What is truth?” after my previous blog asked: “What is love?” – and after I heard yesterday’s news that Merck may have concealed important scientific evidence regarding negative effects of Vioxx.

Important questions depend upon “science” for answers – whether it’s the extent of damage to the ozone layer, the efficacy of particular drugs, the effectiveness of social programs in reducing poverty, the impact of “No child left behind” on academic achievement – or anything else.

But “science” is not some abstract, pristine process of asking questions and obtaining the "right" answers. Scientific work comes out of a stew of value judgments, politics, history, and traditions (“scientific” traditions, and others); and it’s carried out by beings whose human frailty is no less and no more than anyone else’s. Obtaining “objective” data is a trickier process than we all might assume. As citizens, we all need some understanding of “scientific research” – how it works, and doesn’t work, as a tool for guiding significant decisions. We need to learn how to demand credibility, and how to look for it in statements purported to be “scientific”.

Over time, I’ll give my views on what that means.

In the meanwhile, remember the quip attributed to John Glenn regarding his thoughts just before taking off into space. "I looked around and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the lowest bidder."

Many of the medications we use, the technologies on which we depend, the services we hope are effective – actually have only established themselves on the lowest acceptable criteria. This is not bad. We can’t wait forever to get the final answer on everything there is to know about the long term effects of specific drugs, for example. However, the implication is that we must remain vigilant – always searching for new information, always investigating whether some initial findings were incomplete or misleading.

In addition, as the Merck/Vioxx experience illustrates (if indeed it’s true that researchers did not reveal three heart attacks associated with the drug during testing), we need to scrutinize the credentials of those who publish research, to identify potentially vested interests, and sometimes take measures to obtain alternate views.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is charity/"caritas"/love?

The discussion begun by "What is charity?"(November 21) has generated some comments and questions - including the questions of what is included in "charitable organizations" and why do they have tax exempt status in the first place?

The privilege of nonprofit organizations to avoid paying taxes may increasingly be questioned. (Ironically, some of those who challenge this right of nonprofit organizations use tax shelters and other means to avoid taxes on their own wealth - perhaps not paying their fair share of taxes; but that's another issue.) Very legitimate questions should be raised. If some nonprofits sell goods and services and behave just like businesses, why not pay taxes to support the government services necessary to enable those organizations to survive? If a nonprofit can afford to pay its executives salaries that put them into the top 5% of all wage earners in the country, why can't it pay some share of taxes?

Some nonprofit organizations would prefer to avoid these questions. I think the opposite. Those of us who participate in nonprofit organizations, as staff or volunteers, need to address these questions and develop a well-reasoned rationale for the ability of our organizations to be partly or completely exempt from taxation.

Part of the rationale surely does derive from the principles of the commenter who wrote "the rationale behind tax-free status is to not tax groups that are not part of the government, but are performing services for society that government would otherwise need to perform (like health care, education, immigrant assistance) or that are seen as a worthwhile good for society (like the arts and, I believe, religious worship and congregational care & outreach)".

However, we need to think more about this. I'll do so, and I hope you do too.