Business leaders tell Congress: The pandemic has accelerated the need for aggressive, effective skills training investments

By Rachel Unruh, September 29, 2020

At 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the CEO of a Boston-area manufacturing company stepped off the shop floor to join a virtual room of 130 business leaders from across the country. The group had gathered to deliver an urgent message to their elected officials in Washington, DC: The pandemic has accelerated the need for aggressive, effective investments in skills training – a need Congress has so far failed to address.

“America’s people are the backbone of our economy and the future of both depend on the investments we make today,” said Mike Tamasi of Accurounds. “An inclusive economic recovery begins with equipping all workers with the skills and supports they need to succeed.”

Tamasi is chair of Business Leaders United (BLU), an employer-led initiative of National Skills Coalition that supports small and mid-sized business owners in asking policymakers to partner with them in investing in a skilled workforce. Signaling the importance of skills training to their survival as job creators, these business leaders had stepped away from their day to day operations to attend BLU on the Hill, two days of conversations with over 60 federal officials.

Before the pandemic, small businesses provided nearly half of all private sector jobs, employing close to 59 million people. And many were already facing a structural workforce challenge: due to lack of public investment, not enough people in their communities had the opportunity or support to train for skilled jobs. And while the impacts of the pandemic on small business have differed by industry, the need to rapidly train existing and new workers in new technologies, safety protocols, and service delivery models is a shared challenge. A challenge that members of BLU were calling on Congress to help them address.

“There has never been a more important time for our nation to invest in workforce training.”

Traci Tapani, Wyoming Machine (Stacy, MN)

BLU executive committee member Traci Tapani of Wyoming Machine in Minnesota indicated that her company needs CNC machinists and that across her industry there is a need for building digital literacy skills. But current efforts to train and upskill workers have stalled because economic uncertainty and lack of funding have led to class cancellations.

“There has never been a more important time for our nation to invest in workforce training,” Tapani said.

Elected officials who have championed workforce development addressed the business leaders, urging them to take their stories and recommendations to their colleagues in congress.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) told the business owners,“I’m so pleased that even with the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus, there’s so many industry professionals who are coming together to advocate for something that is really important to all of us.”

Portman thanked BLU for helping develop and advance his bi-partisan JOBS Act (co-sponsored by Senator Tim Kaine, D-VA) which would allow workers to use Pell grants for highquality, short-term programs that can help them quickly retrain fora new career.

In addition to calling for more support for short-term training programs, the business leaders spoke to the urgent need for greater local capacity to quickly adapt training programs in light of accelerated demand for re-skilling and upskilling brought on by the pandemic. Ninety percent of attendees indicated that they participate in local sector partnerships that provide this support to their industry, but currently there is no dedicated federal support for this essential capacity.

“We need congress to invest in sector partnerships right now in this struggling economy,” said Edwin Parra with Anning-Johnson Construction in Atlanta. “We need these workers. They need us. We need Congress to help connect the dots by investing in sector partnerships.”

The business leaders also spoke to the need to eliminate barriers to training in their communities. Gerard Camacho with Atrium Health in North Carolina pointed to the number of individuals in his community who can’t afford tuition or the other costs that come with enrolling in training like transportation, food and childcare.

“We need to eliminate barriers to access to training to support an inclusive economic recovery,” Camacho said. “We need Congress to invest in supportive services so businesses can find, train and retain the workforce they need.”

In their remarks to the group, Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-1) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY-2) from the House Education and Labor Committee affirmed the important role of skills training in responding to the pandemic’s economic fallout. The two are co-sponsors of the bi-partisan PARTNERS Act which invests in local sector partnerships to develop work based learning programs and provide wrap around support services.

On Wednesday, the business leaders met individually with over 60 members of congress asking for support of their Legislative BLUprint for Economic Recovery. The platform identifies tangible steps policymakers can take to help advance national skills policies that work for businesses, workers, and theeconomy.

Josh Harrold of Appteon, Inc. in Virginia said devoting two days to educating policymakers about what’s happening in his/her company and community wasn’t a luxury. It was essential.

“This is about more than my company’s bottom line,” he said. “It’s about our collective future. It’s about our ability to fill existing, good-paying jobs, create new jobs, and help restore our local economies by being equitable employers. Our organization is creating an apprenticeship program focused on supporting veterans, women, and communities of color. I’m so grateful to BLU for giving us a platform to share this message with congress.”

“As business leaders, we are making investments in our workforce every day. But we can’t do it alone. We need policymakers to be our partners in this effort.”

Mike Tamasi, AccuRounds (Avon, MA)

“Workforce development is key to restoring our economy,” Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) affirmedin his address to the business leaders in attendance.Business leaders have to invest and congress has to advance the goals of workforce development.

Tamasi agreed. “As business leaders, we are making investments in our workforce every day. But we can’t do it alone. We need policymakers to be our partners in this effort.”

Business Leaders United is made possible by support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cognizant U.S. Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, and Lumina Foundation.Videos from BLU on the Hill are available here.

Business Leaders United is one of four networks convened by National Skills Coalition. Together with our national network of workforce development practitioners; our network of 25 state policy coalitions (SkillSPAN); and our network of 30,000 grassroots advocates (Voice for Skills), BLU is helping to advance the vision and goals in National Skills Coalition’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery.