Reforms needed to modernize the American workforce


Siri will update you on the weather, share a joke, and tell you what’s on your calendar – but what she won’t tell you is that she’s the reason many fear technology is the enemy of jobs. Not Siri alone of course, but the myriad of ways technology is automating systems and eliminating the need for manual processes has created a growing uneasiness about the future of work.

While this fear is very likely overstated, there is no question that technology is reshaping the way work gets done. It is time for policymakers, industry and educators to fully recognize this change, and do more to adjust to the modern business environment.

{mosads}In a display of bipartisan unity July 7, the House Education and Workforce Committee took a significant step towards doing just that. With its unanimous passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, the Committee began the process of streamlining and modernizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act – first passed in the Reagan Administration – to better meet the needs of today’s students and businesses.

The Perkins Act provides federal support to state and local career and technical education, or CTE, programs, which are created and operated by state and local education leaders. These programs prepare high school and postsecondary students with academic, technical, and employability skills. But over the years, they have clearly struggled to keep up with the realities and challenges facing today’s workers and businesses. 

The proposed reauthorization will strengthen connections between CTE programs and business and industry. Doing so will help more precisely identify the career fields, along with the skills and credentials, needed regionally. The legislation also calls for a new biennial needs assessment that will ensure programs stay current as workforce needs evolve. These reforms will help CTE programs make certain students can compete for the particular types of jobs that exist locally – now, and in the future.

The bill promotes a more focused approach to learning through the “programs of study” framework – non-duplicative sequences of courses culminating in education or work-based credentials. And it also promotes work-based learning methods that better connect classroom experiences with the real world of business. Local businesses will provide opportunities for students to apply and refine knowledge, attitudes, and skills through professionally coordinated, supervised and relevant work experience. 

These reforms are vital if we are to adequately prepare students for the realities of the workforce today and tomorrow. But at the same time, a serious policy for providing students with skills and employers with a pipeline of qualified employees must include serious funding levels. Despite the fact that our workforce challenges have gotten more complex – and will continue to do so – the legislation calls for a CTE funding level that is more than $5 million below FY2007. While it does increase funding over current levels, there can be no doubt that a greater commitment will be needed.

After all, policymakers, business leaders and academics are increasingly focused on the effects of technology on the nature and availability of work. Innovation provides a cornucopia of new consumer devices and improves our standard of living in countless ways, but as machines get smarter and smarter, more people worry whether robots are coming for their jobs.

The available evidence shows that technology, and software in particular, is a job creator – transforming low-skill jobs into high-skill jobs or decreasing demand for one skill and increasing it for another.  The reality is that industries using lots of software and technology are not shedding jobs – in fact, the opposite is true. Industries that use software to improve operations generate more jobs than industries that fail to make this investment.

Computer-based systems can now outperform people in many tasks once considered to be within the exclusive competence of humans.  Recent studies suggest that almost half of all occupations in the United States and the United Kingdom are susceptible to computerization, including advanced cognitive work.

Fear of robots replacing us aside, the rapid evolution of technology is unquestionably changing how businesses operate and demanding new types of skills. Our career and technical education and other workforce programs are essential for addressing these technology-driven changes. If the House passes the current reform bill and the Senate follows with quick action, we will make meaningful progress to ensure that technical education can anticipate the demand for jobs and equip the next generation labor force to meet these challenges.

Mark MacCarthy is Senior Vice President, Public Policy for the Software & Information Industry Association.


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