When federal pandemic unemployment programs expired, they shifted immense pressure onto America’s public workforce system. It funds career training, education and job search support predominantly for workers who have been laid off or face barriers to economic mobility. The system aims to align workers’ needs — such as livable wages and job availability — with those of employers — such as a healthy labor supply trained for in-demand jobs. Its purpose is to fuel economic growth and self-sufficiency.
Given Monday’s halt to extended assistance and a decline in workforce system participation during the COVID-19 crisis, a significant increase in enrollments may begin this week among workers who lost the hardest-hit jobs last year — jobs some policymakers refer to as “low-skilled occupations,” paying under $15 hourly.
Meanwhile, if the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes as-is, those charged with staffing its resulting projects will discover a shortage of unemployed-yet-qualified labor. This is because most top infrastructure occupations are middle-skilled jobs. Each requires specialized preparation after high school, from a few weeks of training to an Associate’s degree. Most pay $15 or more hourly and sit on career pathways to increased earnings.
If the bill passes, governments must incorporate workforce development into infrastructure project planning from the outset. They should partner with regional workforce development boards and by extension, the public system to recruit, train and hire workers who have lost jobs in low-skilled occupations during the pandemic. If staffed effectively, these projects could increase household incomes for thousands of workers who may not have attained family-sustaining wages before the recession.
Despite these stakes, Washington has not funded the public workforce system adequately during the pandemic. Legislators must provide additional dollars to the system urgently through the reconciliation process or a special provision under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) — the chief law supporting workforce development activities — to drive an equitable recovery.
Although Congress and President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue MORE have navigated many firsts during the pandemic, providing emergency funds to the system amidst a massive unemployment crisis would not be one of them. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 injected more than $3.5 billion into the system’s key dislocated (laid off) worker, adult, youth and employment services programs alone. The act provided this funding on top of Congress’s yearly allocations to these programs.
In the period relevant to annual funding during the pandemic, Americans filed far more than the initial state unemployment claims they filed in the period relevant to Great Recession funding. Yet COVID-19 recovery aid for the public workforce system has totaled less than 10 percent of that provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for core programs.
WIOA’s Dislocated Worker Program helps Americans who have been laid off secure their next job quickly or enroll in subsidized training for an occupation experiencing high demand. Federal funding for the program during the 2020 program year was 85 percent less than that provided during the 2008 program year, per initial claim filed in the years relevant to state funding calculations. Other programs also experienced severe decreases, although the extent of this varied from state to state
While the bipartisan infrastructure bill would revise existing infrastructure law to allow for spending on workforce development activities, it would not require spending on these activities. As a result, these changes do not address America’s workforce recovery challenges.
The largest infrastructure occupations — “good jobs” —are ideal on-ramps for many workers who have experienced job loss from low-skilled occupations during the pandemic. As they continue to look for new work amidst the final expiration of federal unemployment, these workers may have no other option but to choose among the same meager job choices to which they had previously been limited.
However, large-scale infrastructure investments, coupled with workforce development investments, could change economic outcomes for these workers. We need to invest in U.S. labor amidst the ongoing unemployment crisis and a likely expansion of infrastructure priorities. This investment would directly confront the educational barriers to economic success that many workers experiencing income inequality face, creating a brighter post-COVID future for all Americans.
Jamie Jelly is the director of research and data at the Workforce Development Board of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Works.