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Finding and retaining qualified workers continues to be a crucial issue for small business. That's one conclusion of the 10-month Voices from Main Street survey, sponsored by American Express Small Business. A position paper, published Jan. 31, calls on industry and community leaders to place a greater focus on helping smaller companies find and train employees.

The report, The Small Business Workforce Crisis: A Study of the Skills Shortage and Possible Solutions, portrays this problem from the viewpoint of the thousands of small-business owners who participated in the Voices program, launched in March, 2000.

Jim Blann, senior vice-president of American Express Small Business Services, says the staffing dilemma affects small firms disproportionately "because they don't have the human and financial resources that larger companies have to develop their own programs or take advantage of existing third-party programs."

The position paper, a compilation of comments and research on small-business workforce issues, recommends four possible solutions:

Create a central information repository. Time-taxed entrepreneurs need information, readily accessible to them in one location, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Linking entrepreneurs to existing success stories would help immensely.

Incorporate more internship programs into high-school curriculums. Small companies need to take a greater role in school-to-work programs. In addition, entrepreneurs need to encourage schools to place interns with small businesses.

Create local solutions. Small-business owners should also work with school administrators and teachers in their communities to expand existing curriculums to cover the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Take advantage of the growing number of elderly workers. A focus on preparing young people for the workforce should not be at the expense of developing training programs that can assist workers of any age, especially older Americans, who represent a greater percentage of the population with every passing year. By Robin J. Phillips in New York

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