Wherever you go in California, there are two entities that best understand the local labor market. One is the private sector staffing firms. The other is the local Workforce Investment Board. (WIB).

Ms. Martha Amram, a Milken Institute Fellow and CEO of the energy management firm WattzOn, discovered this. She recently met with Sacramento WIB staff to discuss Prop. 39 funding. She came away stunned  by how much they knew in real time about which energy firms were hiring, what occupations they were hiring for, what the jobs paid.

Similarly, in a recent presentation in Contra Costa, WIB director Stephen Baiter could reel off  the hiring by Contra Costa health care employers and IT employers. In nearby Richmond, WIB director Sal Vaca can tell you exactly who’s hiring and who’s not among the local construction firms. Over in Fresno, Blake Konczal carefully tracks the job seekers coming into the One Stops as well as the daily hiring. The 49 local WIBs in California close to their customers: businesses and job seekers.

This point about local WIB knowledge of their  labor markets  is important to keep in mind in the current discussions on the state level regarding the future of the WIB system, and possible consolidation of WIBs. It may be, as state WIB chair Mike Rossi has suggested, that local WIBs within a region need more joint training opportunities (though there numerous combined WIB training projects throughout the state). However, the narrow geography of at least some of the local WIBs enables them to be on top of weekly and daily shifts in hiring.

silone2The local WIB knowledge can also be contrasted with other efforts in the workforce field in California and elsewhere, that receive public sector funding, and  bring little value.

In Bread and Wine, first published in 1936, Italian novelist Ignazio Silone tells the story of the idealistic university graduate Don Paolo who seeks to use his learning to improve the lot of the peasantry. When Don Paolo goes out in the villages, he is dismayed to find that the writings by his professors and others on collective policies are highly abstract and bear little resemblance to the operations of the peasant economies. Silone writes:

“Don Paolo went to his room to reflect on the peasants…and their lives. The idea occurred to him of using his remaining time at Pietrasecca to finish his essay on the agrarian question. He took his notebook from his bag and started reading the notes he had taken. He read them through and was astonished and dismayed at their abstract character. All these quotations from master and disciples on the agrarian question, all these plans and schemes were the paper scenery in which he had hitherto lived.”

Similarly today in workforce there are a good number of policy professionals and economic development groups setting forth  schemes and plans on employment, distinguished by their abstract and vague qualities.  Let’s take one recent example: a book published earlier in 2013, Working Scared or Not at All by Rutgers professor Carl Van Horn, whose Center for Workforce Development  at Rutgers has generous government funding.  The final chapter in this book is pretentiously entitled, “Restoring the Shattered Dreams of American Workers”.  Professor Van Horn solemnly announces that “we must strive for greater equity and opportunity by developing a better-educated and more competitive workforce”—as if anyone would disagree. Then follows a list for government programs, equally empty, such as “Reform high school and college education to prepare all students for careers”, “Expand learning opportunities for workers throughout their careers”, and “Establish a twenty-first century worker-employer compact”—in which (surprise), employers and government work together for economic growth.

What a contrast with California’s local WIBs. How much books like this should make us appreciate the expertise and focus of our local WIB staff.