Trump wants to be a jobs president, so he can't ignore human capital
© Getty

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE continues to promote the lofty promises of his campaign: good jobs, better wages, and record-setting economic growth. But for the vast majority of Americans, attempts to prevent low-skilled jobs from moving abroad won’t create real opportunity at home. If the president and Congress are serious about putting more Americans on the path to the middle class, then Washington should be investing in a 21st Century human capital system.

Trump was elevated to the presidency on a rising tide of frustration among voters who feel that the economic and political system in this country no longer serves them. Wages are stagnant, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and many Americans are unprepared to compete in the knowledge economy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Three out of five Americans who are between the prime working ages of 25 to 64 have no more than a high school degree, including one in five who started college but dropped out. As a result, many are stuck in poverty: among working families in New York that earn wages at less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, more than half lack a parent with any postsecondary education at all. For these Americans struggling to reach the middle class, flexible and effective job training programs can provide the best shot at increased economic opportunity.

 

Although the administration continues to tout its support for American workers, workforce development and job training programs are conspicuously absent from the White House’s list of accomplishments in the first 100 days. The country finally got a window into the administration’s thinking at an early April meeting with CEOs, where Ivanka Trump laid out a vision of improved STEM education, more apprenticeships, and better workforce retraining programs. But further disinvestment from federal workforce development initiatives will make these laudable goals all but impossible.

The country’s single largest source of funds for worker training and job readiness preparation, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), has been slashed by nearly 40 percent since 2001, forcing local areas to severely curtail their services. The first step toward building a better human capital development system would be to fully fund WIOA, allowing programs to deliver higher quality education and training while holding them accountable to their clients’ outcomes. Instead, the Trump administration’s proposed “skinny budget” calls for cutting funding by an additional 35 percent. Hobbling existing workforce development programs without offering a vision for what will replace them is a strategy doomed to mirror the administration’s bungled attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act.

These cuts further erode a system that’s already underdeveloped and overburdened, holding America back from building a human capital development system that is accessible to all. The federal Pell Grant program maintains rigid eligibility standards that favor traditional college students — those enrolling directly in a four-year program after high school — over workers seeking a fast-tracked program to boost their skills and then return to work as quickly as possible. Byzantine rules governing benefits under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program cut off many welfare recipients from the education and training they would need to stay off the welfare rolls. In addition, policymakers lack a set of common performance measures across the whole range of human capital programs.

The idea that the country’s workforce development system can do more with less is pure fantasy. Current federal investments barely cover lower-touch services, such as placing people into jobs and helping them with their resumes. Investing in skills building, continuing education, and program evaluation — not to mention expanding these programs to serve many more people than they do today — will require an investment from the federal government. The Trump administration needs to embrace these investments if it is serious about helping workers gain the skills they need to be competitive in the labor force.

The administration should also modernize the Pell Grant program in order to put the country’s largest source of human capital development funds to work for the nation’s lesser-skilled workers. The federal government should update the program’s rules to make it easier for workers to receive financial aid for non-credit, short-term training programs. This policy change will spur the development and expansion of innovative programs at community colleges across the nation that can produce workers with the skills that employers need to grow their businesses.

In addition, federal regulations should require states to issue combined WIOA and TANF workforce development plans, rather than isolating TANF recipients from skills-building opportunities. This will allow more welfare recipients to build marketable skills and break out of the cycle of poverty. Finally, Congress should reauthorize and reform the Perkins Act — an issue which has bipartisan support. Reforms should include loosening funding restrictions to allow more investment in promising work-based learning initiatives like the nationally-recognized P-TECH model and aligning CTE programs with WIOA performance measures, which incentivize curricula that meet real employer demand.

By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the nation will require a postsecondary degree, compared to just 28 percent of jobs in 1973. At the same time, nearly half of those jobs will be accessible to workers with an associate’s degree or specialized certificate. These postsecondary degrees can unlock opportunities in fast-growing occupations — like medical assistants, phlebotomists, HVAC installers, and web developers — that are a big step up from the low-paid jobs available to high school graduates.

In addition, short-term, middle-skill training programs could be a lifeline for workers whose jobs have been offshored or lost to automation.

If Trump wants to be the jobs president, then he needs to be the human capital president. No amount of international trade deal-busting or wholesale deportation of immigrant workers is going to bring back the manufacturing and mining jobs that once provided a path to the middle class. To its credit, the administration is showing signs of recognition that the United States needs a unified workforce vision.

With skills trading higher than ever in the labor market, modernizing the U.S. human capital development system has never been more important. It’s time to start creating a skills-building infrastructure today that will help millions of Americans prosper in the economy of tomorrow. For that, Donald Trump will have to put his investments where his mouth is.

Christian González-Rivera is a senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy organization dedicated to reducing inequality, increase economic mobility, and grow the economy.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.