US workforce development must catch up to 21st century needs
During the year-plus since the pandemic began, Congress and two administrations have provided urgently needed support to help American families cope with abrupt and severe economic challenges, including expanded unemployment benefits, food assistance, and rent and loan deferrals. But the ever-changing workforce landscape will continue to evolve long after this pandemic ends.
Just as medical research must continue if we’re to stay ahead of the next variant, mutation, or entirely novel health threat that emerges, so too must economic development efforts remain proactive.
Regardless of when a complete economic reopening finally happens, President Biden and Congress must advance the federal workforce development policies and expenditures that will be needed to sustain a post-pandemic economy. Central to that will be helping workers navigate and access work-relevant education and training that enable rewarding careers.
The dislocations resulting from the pandemic are dire. The recovery will be slow in some industries, and changes in work locations and consumer preferences will create lasting aftershocks. Millions of American workers face varying — or vanishing — occupations and need new skills as they transition.
That is precisely why continual “booster shots,” not one-time funding that ends when the economy rebounds, will be necessary. Current dislocations, while dramatic, merely illustrate patterns that have emerged over the past decade and are likely to continue. Even when the U.S. enjoyed very low unemployment rates before the pandemic, that statistic masked the economic struggles of families across the nation. During the decade after the Great Recession, nearly half of American workers found little or no improvement in income and paths to good jobs. A disproportionate number of Black and Latino workers fell into that lower half. The U.S. needs to build and sustain an ecosystem that supports continual learning and career mobility for all Americans.
As the futurist Alvin Toffler rightly predicted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Workers today must gain new knowledge and skills to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, industries, and careers. Federal support that ensures affordable and equitable access to lifelong learning interconnected with viable career paths is crucial.
For too many, those education-employment paths are an opaque, confusing maze. Workers need support to navigate them. The options can be overwhelming; adult learners must choose from nearly one million different degrees, certificates, certifications and other credentials. Specific job titles and requirements are morphing continually, with many inscrutable to job seekers. We need to provide workers with access to skilled career navigators who can advise them on the choices that shape career progression. Modern careers involve multiple job changes, so career navigation must also include support around acquiring new necessary skills and credentials, re-skilling opportunities, and other reemployment assistance.
We also need to provide other support services that nurture harmonious learning and work. Improved childcare availability and assistance with other challenges, including transportation, food and housing, are examples. Life coaches, who can provide an invaluable service to those facing major barriers to continue learning and their employment, are another idea.
A reimagined workforce policy also should embrace job-quality strategies that center on how to transform currently low-wage jobs into ones that can provide workers sustainable income, benefits and career pathway options. For those caught between jobs, we should learn from the pandemic and reconstruct unemployment insurance to make it nationally consistent and inclusive of those who’ve been excluded in the past.
After 40 years of declining investments in workforce development, building this ecosystem to include the components workers urgently need will not be cheap. We estimate that this set of recommendations will require $70 billion per year to fully fund — $50 billion for education and training, $10 billion for career navigation and other supportive services and $10 billion for badly needed infrastructure that has received little attention (research and development, technology, professional development, improved labor market information and more). Making that investment would move the U.S. from being one of the lowest per capita investors in workforce development into the mainstream of what is happening in advanced nations worldwide.
We are at a turning point as profound as when the GI Bill made college possible for millions of low- and middle-income Americans after World War II. Rethinking and expanding federal investments in workforce development is an opportunity not only to support education-to-career pathways but pathways to social mobility and equitable economic prosperity.
These recommendations and others are outlined in Modernizing and Investing in Workforce Development, a product of the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) task force, a coalition of more than 40 leading practitioners and experts working to modernize the United States’ outdated patchwork of workforce policies.
Larry Good is president & CEO of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. Earl Buford is president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
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