Lawmakers grapple with the future of America’s workforce

The future of the American workforce will depend on how well government, business and educators work together to address the technological and economic changes ahead, according to lawmakers and experts at The Hill’s event on “Workers & The Innovation Age” on Thursday.

The event, sponsored by Paychex, brought together a bipartisan group of lawmakers, business leaders, human relations professionals, and policymakers, who all stressed the need for creative solutions.

The panelists weighed the challenges presented by increasing automation, the rise of the gig economy, new obstacles to retirement savings and the skills gap.{mosads}

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concern over a lack of jobs with solid wages and benefits available to workers without a college degree or special technical skills.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) noted the lack of available federal student aid for workers seeking technical education,

“We have this skills gap that can only be filled by flexible responsive programs that are primarily somewhere between high school and a college degree,” Portman said.

The senator has proposed a bill to expand Pell Grants to specialized technical education.

“Think coding. Think welding, machinist. Think truck-driving. Think of all the health care, tech jobs. That’s what we need in Ohio,” Portman added.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said American businesses should take a lead role in training new employees, especially those companies that have laid off or outsourced jobs.

“Workers have become too much a cost to be minimized,” Brown said. “There needs to be some corporate responsibility to this, too.”

“The system is not working for everyone,” said Michele Chang, director of the Rework America Business Network at the Markle Foundation, highlighting the need for a collaborative approach.

“Employers are saying they can’t find the workers they need. Educators are saying they don’t know what skills to train students for, and workers are struggling to clearly articulate what they can do to employers.”

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO, Society for Human Resource Management, said there was a need to think more broadly about the skilled workforce the country needs.

Taylor said there was a demand for skilled workers outside of the tech jobs many associate with the modern economy.

“We need welders, we need carpenters. Those are skilled jobs but we don’t think of them that way,” Taylor, Jr. said. “Those are many of the jobs that are going unfilled right now.”

The event also highlighted the economic challenges workers are facing.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said declining pensions and concerns about long-term health care were among her constituents’ chief concerns.

“It used to be back in the day you went to work, you had a pension, you had health benefits,” Blunt Rochester said. “People are concerned, ‘Will my benefits still be there for me and will I still have a future?’”

But business leaders also stressed that workers will also need to be more flexible to navigate the changing economy.

“It’s not the same anymore where you work for a single company for 40 years or even 15 years,” said Adam Segal, founder and CEO of Cove.

“We’re becoming more and more like free agents, so we need to have that skill base where we’re able to adapt and retool ourselves in a creative way.” 

Tags Rob Portman Sherrod Brown

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