Online learning critical to the ‘reskilling’ of America

America is facing the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. One in four American workers has filed for unemployment insurance since March. In less than four months, over 44 million American workers have watched their jobs be put on hold or disappear entirely — and that number is expected to grow in the coming months.

The CARES Act provided initial relief by injecting 2 trillion dollars into a limping economy, but Congress has so far failed to determine a next step to support workers. Everyone agrees something needs to be done, but a bipartisan approach seems as elusive as an end to the pandemic shutdown — which could continue well into next year. As states progress through phased reopenings, the pandemic conversation is shifting from how we keep the economy afloat to how we approach rebuilding it.

The pandemic has accelerated businesses’ need for technology and AI-driven automation. Many low-skilled jobs will be lost, and new, higher-skilled jobs will be created, creating an impending challenge for lawmakers: Displaced workers will not necessarily have the skills needed for the new jobs created during this period of volatility. This will further aggravate a labor market imbalance, and millions of high-skilled jobs are likely to go unfilled due to a shortage of skilled workers. This imbalance includes high-demand positions such as data scientists, software developers, cybersecurity experts, and IT support.

Policymakers should use this opportunity to launch a large-scale effort to help Americans develop the skills to do the jobs of the future.

Some lawmakers are already laying the foundation for this American reskilling. The Skills Renewal Act is a bipartisan, bicameral proposal to provide a $4,000 tax credit to individuals to cover the cost of training programs that build high-demand skills. To maximize participation during the pandemic, the bill includes provisions for distance learning to help workers with access to job-relevant education. This is where the Skills Renewal Act could have a transformational impact.

Amidst this pandemic, Americans require a solution that meets them where they are, offering a safe learning environment during social distancing while preparing them for in-demand jobs now and post-COVID.

There is good evidence that the provisions of this bill can broaden the impact of private-sector innovations, which are creating accessible opportunities for learning high demand skills. The success of the Google IT Support Professional Certificate is a powerful indicator of how access to online learning can quickly prepare people with no tech background for IT jobs. More than 230,000 learners have enrolled in this program, and completers have immediate access to hiring opportunities by top companies.

Singapore offers a proven model for how government investment in a skills-based education boosts the economy while improving workers’ career mobility. Over the last five years, Singapore’s government has built the SkillsFuture movement, which offers spendable credits for online learning, apprenticeships, and skills acquisition programs. Since the movement’s launch, more than 500,000 Singaporeans have used their $500 credits — around 49 percent of those eligible for the program. Singapore is acting on the rationale that the more equipped the worker, the more resilient and adaptable a workforce can be in times of crisis and rapid change.

Online learning helps workers develop skills at an unparalleled speed and scale, as seen with the recent experience of training tens of thousands of contact tracers in a matter of weeks. Public health experts estimate that anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 contact tracers are needed to curtail the spread of coronavirus effectively. Johns Hopkins University (JHU), in partnership with Coursera (the company I lead) and Bloomberg Philanthropies, mobilized researchers and health experts to design an online contact tracing curriculum within a matter of weeks. The COVID-19 Contact Tracing course has 350,000 enrollees thus far — of which more than 125,000 have already earned their certificate. Not only does contact tracing training create jobs, but it also creates the skills needed to reopen our economy and keep it open while managing the spread of the pandemic.

Coursera has seen 13 million new learners since mid-March; it’s clear to me that American workers are ready to learn and eager to turn the current slowdown into an opportunity to reskill into a new career.

Now, it’s up to Congress to help these displaced employees access the training they need to come out of the pandemic in a position of strength. Lawmakers interested in comprehensive solutions to our nation’s unemployment and skills crisis should sign on and pass the Skills Renewal Act and include similar provisions for online learning in the next stimulus bill.

By tapping into advancements in online learning, lawmakers have an opportunity to help workers navigate the current unemployment crisis, and in the long run, raise the competitiveness of the American workforce on the global stage.

Jeff Maggioncalda is CEO of Coursera, a world-wide online learning platform.

Tags CARES Act coronavirus economy Coursera distance learning Google online learning retraining Unemployment

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