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Creating jobs isn’t enough. Congress needs to work together to help fill them

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With Republicans controlling the House by a small margin and Democrats controlling the Senate by an even smaller one, experts are predicting plenty of friction ahead for the 118th Congress. But even in a time of heightened partisanship, there may still be ample opportunity for  bipartisan legislation that can improve economic opportunity for the nation’s workers and their families. Recent consensus on historic infrastructure and jobs legislation is proof of that.

At the same time, those earlier bipartisan efforts have created an even greater need for policymakers to collaborate across the aisle. With two openings for every unemployed worker, there are not nearly enough skilled workers to fill the jobs already available, let alone the millions of new ones the law will create. Congress must now build off the bipartisan successes of recent years to create new opportunities for millions of learners and workers. Here are six big ideas for education and the workforce that have support across the political spectrum.

Invest in Community Colleges. With their close ties to local and regional employers and their emphasis on career readiness, community colleges are already a tremendous resource for workforce development. But they need more support. Congress should provide greater funding to community colleges, helping them scale learning strategies that allow students to progress through programs more quickly and efficiently. 

Stackable credentials, for example, permit learners to work toward broader educational goals while accruing shorter-term credentials along the way that open up doors to advancement in their current careers. Meanwhile, dual enrollment pathways enable students to earn credit toward an associate degree at a local college while still in high school and get a jump start on preparing for their careers. 

Create New Pathways from High School to the Workforce. Congress must work to create a more seamless transition between education and careers. Too often, high school, college, and the workforce are treated as distinct, disconnected chapters in a student’s life, when they should be viewed as a continuous and seamless journey

In recent years, there has been bipartisan support for strengthening these connections, and Congress should now work to build on this foundation. Congress can create incentives and new financing and accountability models that encourage states to increase equitable access to more of these early college and career exposure opportunities. 

Rethink How We Pay for Education and Training. While there’s certainly plenty of disagreement over President Biden’s plans around forgiving student debt, there’s little debate among policymakers that the way we finance postsecondary education is broken. Our current student loan system sets students up for failure and leaves far too many learners deep in debt and with little to show for it. 

New innovative finance options, such as income share agreements, are emerging that can align the financial incentives of schools with their students’ success, ensuring that students only pay for an education that pays off for them. These new finance options feature their own unique risks, however, and there’s confusion over how to apply existing federal consumer lending laws. Bipartisan legislation should establish clear and thoughtful regulations that foster innovation while ensuring students are protected. 

Expand Pell Grants to Cover Short-Term Credentials. Pell Grants have been the cornerstone of our federal financial aid system for 60 years. Unfortunately, the rules governing this critical program have not kept pace with our ever-evolving labor market, nor the rapidly expanding array of short-term learning programs now being built to provide a quicker pathway to higher wages and stable careers. Currently, Pell grants are limited to only more traditional forms of postsecondary education, such as two- and four-year degree programs. 

Policymakers can also expand the federal Pell Grant program to include the sort of short-term credentials that employers increasingly value—a measure already proposed in the bipartisan Jumpstart our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act.

Upgrade the Nation’s Workforce Development System. Congress should work to reimagine the nation’s workforce development system. That includes transforming how we deliver education and training, developing a robust career navigation system, and expanding sector-focused career pathways. Any strategies to achieve these goals should be designed to serve both the needs of employers and the needs of a diverse workforce, including the many young people and adults who are neither working nor enrolled in education or training programs. At the same time, Congress should significantly increase investments in skills development programs.

Unlock Opportunity for People With Criminal Records. Even as an ongoing labor shortage has left employers struggling to fill millions of job vacancies, the policies and customs governing the workplace continue to largely disqualify nearly one-third of the country’s adults. That’s the share of adults with a past conviction or a criminal record.

Congress should work toward bipartisan agreement on policies that expand the skilled labor pool and give justice-impacted individuals a fair chance in the job market. It can start by making the bipartisan Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) program a permanent and ongoing initiative and significantly increasing its funding so more youth and adults can reenter their communities and find workplace success following incarceration. 

Even at a time of historic partisanship, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the long-term economic competitiveness of the United States depends on the strength of our education and workforce systems. So, call your senators. Write your representatives. And remind them of the opportunities within their reach to create pathways to economic opportunity for millions of Americans.

Karishma Merchant is associate vice president of policy and advocacy for Jobs for the Future.

Tags job training Joe Biden

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