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An 'upskill bill' can be the GI Bill for a post-COVID workforce

An 'upskill bill' can be the GI Bill for a post-COVID workforce
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President Biden took office with four top priorities: combating COVID-19, rebuilding the economy, addressing racial inequity and fighting climate change. Starting right away, he has promised action to ramp up vaccine production and distribution and provide much needed support for families who are struggling.

One practical priority will help address all those goals: getting all of America, from all backgrounds, back to work — in the kinds of good-paying jobs that serve the needs of today and tomorrow and have proven resilient through the last year of pandemic. 

It’s why I believe Congress should include among its stimulus measures an 'upskill Bill', a major investment in higher education for all Americans.  

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Just as the GI Bill changed America for the better in the decades after World War II, the upskill bill can transform America after the coronavirus, building an equitable workforce trained to address crucial challenges like healthcare and decarbonization. 

The last year has made clear the benefits accruing to the skilled workforce. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only about five percent of service workers have been able to work from home, while more than half of information workers did. Beyond that, skilled workers didn’t see job losses in the same volume and it’s less likely that their jobs will simply no longer exist. Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning were already threatening many unskilled jobs; the crisis has only accelerated that shift. 

This period has clarified things we’ve long known to be true. College graduates earn far more in their lifetimes than those without college degrees because the skills they learn in college — not just subject-specific expertise but also soft skills like critical thinking, leadership and communication — make them much more valuable to employers. Even some level of college education helps increase lifetime earnings and we’re increasingly seeing that those who already have degrees need and want new training to prepare them for different kinds of work.

All workers deserve the benefit of a college education. That’s why our country needs to make a comprehensive effort to provide opportunities for workers to gain new skills.

It means the college and universities must find new ways to be flexible. We have to make degrees available to everyone who wants them, which means expanding online and hybrid offerings and finding new ways to support students who want to come learn on campus.

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We must also offer new kinds of credentials for new kinds of students. Not everyone wants to earn a degree and we should offer shorter, less expensive, targeted programs that can quickly get people the skills they need regardless of their educational background. Make those kinds of badge and certificate programs available to those who already have a college degree but want to adapt their skills for a changing world.

But the key is to provide access. As educational institutions, we need to provide these opportunities and we also need to make sure that all students are able to take advantage of them. Increasing access to college helps build a more equitable society.

That’s where government comes in. Just as the GI Bill helped pave the way for an expansion of college access, an upskill bill can pave the way for even more access — especially in underserved communities — and the economic resurgence this country needs over the next few years. A substantial federal investment in upskilling workers will not only help America recover, it will help position our country to thrive in the changed world.

The Biden administration has proposed nearly $2 trillion in new stimulus. The upskill bill should be a part of those plans; to help Americans get back to work, to help colleges and universities continue to fulfill their key role in society and to ensure that America continues to thrive after the pandemic is behind us.

Marvin Krislov is the eighth President of Pace University which has campuses in New York City and Westchester.