Use the COVID-19 crisis to train the workforce of the future

Use the COVID-19 crisis to train the workforce of the future
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With the stunning, whirlwind pace of COVID-19’s destruction ripping through America, congressional leaders and the Trump administration have already begun pledging a follow-on relief package to the historic $2 trillion CARES Act. A critical focus of the economic provisions in a follow-on package must be placed on fulfilling the relief pledges to small businesses and the millions of unemployed and furloughed workers. But the next package should also begin to prepare the American workforce for the post COVID-19 economy. 

This can be accomplished by providing American workers who are furloughed, working diminished hours or unemployed with opportunities for training, retraining and upskilling. 

The responsibility for developing and refreshing the skills of American workers to meet the shifting demands of the fast-paced technological disruption needed to be a top priority for business and public policy leaders prior to COVID-19. Anxiety among businesses and workers already persisted about how future changes would disrupt the future of work. With innovative programs, this unprecedented crisis can be turned into an opportunity to accelerate this upskilling challenge. 

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Over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in just the last two weeks of March. That number is expected to keep surging as the shock to the economy is felt beyond those industries hardest hit at the outset and as more states mandate the closure of non-essential businesses. Hundreds of thousands of American workers have been furloughed in just the past several days, and companies are turning to furloughs more frequently in this crisis than in the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

To help alleviate the disruption of these stunning shocks, several important adjustments should be included in the next phase of legislation that can provide opportunities for training and upskilling for those who are unemployed, furloughed or have diminished hours.

First, unemployment insurance benefits should provide monies for training and further education programs, either as a direct reimbursement to the insured or to the institution or organization providing the training, similar to Pell grants. These benefits would be available to both unemployed and furloughed workers. 

Second, tax incentives can also be given to businesses to continue to provide education and training benefits to their furloughed workers or workers with diminished hours or to initiate those benefits as part of a furlough package if they had not been offered before.  Many large companies (as many as 92 percent, according to one study) had already implemented tuition assistance programs as a way to attract top talent.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, business leaders and policymakers were addressing the challenge of better positioning U.S. workers to contribute to and share in growing prosperity in the years ahead. With the setbacks to the economy inflicted by COVID-19, preparing U.S. workers becomes even more important.

America is bracing itself for its “Pearl Harbor” moment over the next weeks, with COVID-19 infections and death tolls expected to soar, the health care sector under intense stress and the economy in a tailspin. That makes it even more important to include these provisions in the Phase IV COVID-19 legislation. It would help provide a glimmer of hope that, during these difficult times, Americans can prepare to compete and succeed in the post COVID-19 economy.   

Lori Esposito Murray is president of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) of The Conference Board. She is a former adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also previously held the national security chair at the U.S. Naval Academy.