Will there be 2020 foresight regarding America's skills dilemma?
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The speed-dating events that double as the opening debates of the 2020 presidential campaign are producing some sweeping proposals regarding health care and a green New Deal. But when it comes to helping American workers adapt to the rapidly changing nature of work, we hear less inspiring, often recycled, ideas. Candidates rightly pointed out many of the trends reshaping the workplace and the workforce, but they missed the most powerful force of all: the desire in U.S. workers to embrace the changing nature of work and improve their prospects. When we surveyed 11,000 “middle skills” workers (those with less education than a four-year college degree) across the world, we found that U.S. workers had the greatest sense of optimism, engagement, and agency in the face of momentous changes in technology and global markets —compared to workers in advanced countries like France, Germany and the UK, or those in emerging markets like Brazil, China and India.

U.S. workers were also the most likely to hold themselves, rather than companies or government, responsible for preparing for the future of work. But while nearly half of U.S. workers surveyed saw the need to prepare for future work requirements, only a third considered themselves capable of preparing. The impediments they cited most often were the high cost of training and the loss of wages as they took time to train. Both obstacles suggest a crucial and urgent role for private and public innovation in fostering the latent enthusiasm of U.S. workers to make themselves workforce ready.

Regardless of politics, there are two other important areas where paradigm-shifting innovation will be particularly important. The first is in the role of U.S. community colleges, currently an underutilized resource. While the candidates debate how to address high tuition costs and student debt, the traditional argument for a four-year college degree overlooks the valuable alternative offered by community colleges. The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program spent a year studying 30 community colleges that have succeeded in readying their students for job opportunities in a dynamic, fast-changing economy.

Mira Costa Community College in Southern California for example, coordinates with regional employers, economic development agencies, and communities to create curricula and degree programs in emerging disciplines like bio-manufacturing. Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota, prepares students, many from rural, low-income communities, for careers in agro business and advanced manufacturing. Given their lower tuition, training in foundational workforce readiness skills like punctuality, and job-placement services, such community colleges help companies in the region prosper while putting workers on the path to well-paying, quality jobs.   

The second area ripe for innovation is the link between care responsibilities and the skills gap. The 2020 campaign is already foregrounding the connection between care and jobs, which is especially salient for women, who disproportionally bear the burden of unpaid care, and “sandwich” generation workers, those caring for both older and younger family members. Candidates are advancing proposals for expanding federal legislation on family and medical leave—but much more is required.

The U.S. economy needs bold, new approaches on caregiving that can unshackle millions of Americans who have the required skills but cannot participate in the labor force due to their unpaid care duties. Currently, the caregiving needs of employees are an unacknowledged struggle, as they are supposed to magically find work-life balance in an always-on, 24-by-7, work culture. Most employers do not track their employees’ caregiving needs nor do they track if the care services provided are actually ever used by employees. Ultimately, this don’t-ask, don’t-tell approach serves neither employers nor employees. Our survey of 1,500 U.S. employees showed that 32 percent were moved to quit a job due to caregiving responsibilities. In younger employees, between the ages of 26 and 35, the churn was even higher: 50 percent had already left a job because of caregiving.  

As candidates hit the campaign trail, we hear calls for federal grants to the unemployed and underemployed for education and skills training, pragmatically allowing for spending on transportation and child care. While these ideas are well meaning and have merit, America needs even bolder, braver ideas, something we’re hoping to hear in the coming debates. The problems of workforce development and the challenges of workers’ care obligations require long term solutions from business, education, and policy leaders.

Joseph B. Fuller is a Professor of Management Practice in General Management, at Harvard Business School (HBS). He co-chairs the HBS Project on Managing the Future of Work and is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.