How government, private partnerships use jobs to fight addiction

Despite increased investment and attention from public officials, the opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc on communities across the country. In 2017 alone, Chicagoland experienced over 2,000 opioid-related fatalities and nearly 13,400 non-fatal overdoses.

Most citizens now have only one degree of separation from someone who has personally been impacted by opioid addiction or, tragically, an overdose. Aside from the terrible physical and emotional pain inflicted on victims and their families, the societal impacts of this epidemic on our communities are quite substantial. The epidemic has placed enormous financial burdens on public health, law enforcement and judicial systems. However, one societal impact that is frequently forgotten but could yield the most significant long-term consequences to our nation is the impact of opioid addiction on the American workforce.

We already see signs that opioid use is hurting labor participation and productivity. One recent study from the Brookings Institution found that among prime working age Americans (25-54 years) who were not currently participating in the workforce, more than 43% of men and 25% of women were not actively employed because of opioid use. If those rates were applied to Chicagoland, nearly 339,000 individuals who could be working and contributing to our region's economic growth are not as a result of opioid use.

If those individuals were to recover and re-enter the workforce, they would create a labor pool that could fill nearly 14 Amazon HQ2s. Without action, we not only risk billions in lost economic activity - but more importantly, we risk losing a generation of prime American human capital that could help keep our workforce competitive in the 21st Century global economy.

How do we address the workforce impacts of the opioid epidemic? Job training programs. Studies show that patients with substance use disorder are more likely to recover if they are employed. A job provides stability, dignity and a sense of purpose that helps patients break free from their addiction. Employment also helps reduce harmful stigma that is often attributed to those suffering from addiction. The onus now falls on the private, public and non-profit sectors to form job training programs to help recovering patients learn new skills and find gainful employment.

To find a shining example of a successful workforce partnership in Chicagoland, one must look no further than suburban DuPage County. Through a partnership involving county government, the workNet DuPage Career Center, College of DuPage, area treatment providers and local manufacturing employers, DuPage County launched its Recovery and Manufacturing a Path Up (RAMP-UP) pilot program in 2018. RAMP-UP helps individuals struggling with substance use disorder acquire marketable technical skills in preparation for in-demand manufacturing careers. Eligible students receive a blend of classroom instruction and independently guided online learning based on the nationally recognized Manufacturing Skill Standards Council Certified Production Technician (CPT) curriculum. Through participation in RAMP-UP, multiple individuals in recovery from substance abuse disorders are currently maintaining their sobriety, while pursuing credentials and interviewing for jobs that will allow them to launch careers with substantial earning power.

We must encourage counties, states and the federal government to follow DuPage's lead and consider workforce development as a critical component of combating the opioid epidemic. Through these partnerships, we can provide a path away from addiction and toward a productive future, one job at a time.

Greg Hart is a DuPage County Board member, co-chairman of the Heroin Opioid Prevention & Education (HOPE) Taskforce and a human capital management consultant with Point B. Dr. Lanny Wilson is the vice president of the DuPage County Board of Health and co-chairman of the HOPE Taskforce

Lanny Wilson
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