On the frontlines of a pandemic, America's workforce needs a lifeline now
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Policymakers deserve credit for coming together in a bipartisan way on three stimulus packages that help workers access paid sick leave, expand unemployment insurance, suspend work requirements for safety net programs, make very small investments in workforce training to dislocated workers, and take a first step towards helping businesses avert layoffs.

What’s missing is a robust, comprehensive workforce strategy to address the immediate shortages in industries that are needed to respond to this crisis, while at the same time preparing for our economic recovery afterwards.

The coronavirus pandemic has made one thing crystal clear: the unsung heroes in our society are the men and women at the frontlines, risking their health and safety to keep our country moving. They’re the health care professionals working around the clock to keep us healthy. The grocery store clerks working day and night to stock the shelves. The electricians, mechanics and HVAC technicians who keep our utilities up and running.

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They’re the janitors working tirelessly to clean and sterilize our buildings. The first responders who keep us safe. The truck drivers and delivery workers who drive long hours to deliver our food, medical supplies, and other essential goods. These men and women in skilled positions – many of which don’t require a four-year degree – have always been the backbone of our economy.

Industries like health care, logistics and manufacturing are essential to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, these are the same industries that have long faced worker shortages because of insufficient investment and policies that provide workers access to the training and support necessary to succeed in those jobs.

As a result of those shortages, we now don’t have enough trained workers to build new ventilators. Our hospitals are overwhelmed and overburdened because there aren’t enough health workers. Not to mention our first responders who don’t have enough support to meet the demand of this crisis.

Industries, to their credit, are adapting and doing the best they can to effectively respond. Companies like Wyoming Machine, Inc. – a small metal fabricator with less than 60 employees in Stacy, Minn. – are being called upon to increase production of metal plates for ventilators that are needed to help patients deal with severe cases of the respiratory disease. Wyoming Machine makes 5,000 plates annually but the crisis demands that they make 10,000 before April.

Companies can’t do it alone. The federal government needs to step up.

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America drastically underinvests in workforce training compared to virtually every other industrialized country. In fact, we would need to invest $80 billion in workforce development each year, just to reach the median level – let alone the top – of the workforce investments that other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are making.

An international crisis demands a U.S. response that is at least on par with – better yet, goes beyond – our industrialized peers. That’s why a fourth stimulus package is desperately needed quickly.

The first three stimulus packages have made slight progress towards a comprehensive response to assist workers and help businesses trying to keep their doors open by reducing some barriers to our nation’s safety net. Now it’s time for Congress to live up to their commitment to workers, businesses and communities across the country.

First, Congress should address workforce shortages and training needs today by:

  1. Investing an additional $6 billion in Title I of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to expand access to training programs that help adults, workers who have lost their jobs, and young people to rapidly train for jobs open today.
  2. Investing an additional $1 billion investment in WIOA Title II to support education for workers’ literacy, numeracy, and digital skills to help them upskill and reskill to keep their jobs during this crisis.
  3. Expanding access to Pell grants for high-quality, short-term programs in in-demand industries so that students and workers can access the education and training they need to rapidly re-skill and upskill in a changing economy.
  4. Providing $5 billion to reinvest in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund (TANF ECF), modernizing the program to ensure workers with the greatest skill needs have access to subsidized jobs and training to prepare for in-demand industries.

Second, access to training isn’t enough. We must modernize how we respond to displacement and ensure that workers get the support they need to succeed in these training programs. Congress should invest $10 billion in a Universal Dislocated Worker Fund to ensure that all workers, including contingent workers, can access income, health care and retraining support services.

Our national Trade Adjustment Assistance for Workers program provides these supports, but it is available to too few workers. A Universal Dislocated Worker Fund would help ensure these benefits are extended to all forms of economic displacement, including those caused by pandemics.

Finally, we must help businesses avert layoffs by empowering them to not only upskill and reskill their existing workforce but also partner with education providers to ensure rapid response training meets current industry needs.

A good step in the right direction would be to expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to provide businesses with a tax credit of up to $10,000 for costs associated with on-the-job learning and skills training for incumbent workers. Congress should also invest in Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Community College Training Partnership grants, by at least $3 billion over the next three years, to support community and technical college and business partnerships that empower colleges to provide in-demand training to workers.

The financial, emotional and physical toll that this health pandemic has put on our country can’t be overstated. This is a crisis we could’ve been better prepared for if we had made the necessary investments in workers and businesses.

We have the opportunity to do that now. Lawmakers shouldn’t squander it.

Katie Spiker is Director of Government Affairs at National Skills Coalition.