Here’s what Skills Advocates Should be Listening for in the State of the Union Address

President Biden is scheduled to give his State of the Union Address this Thursday, March 7, 2024. Typically, the State of the Union address is a chance for the president to signal his policy priorities for the upcoming year. It’s an important moment, because even just a mention of a particular issue in the State of the Union can galvanize public support, generate media attention, catalyze legislative action, and inspire activists. Since this is an election year, the president will likely talk about the achievements of his administration over the past three years, and how he hopes to build on them. We’ll likely also hear appeals to bipartisanship, and willingness to work across party lines to address the most pressing challenges facing the nation.

Investing in Training for Infrastructure Skills

At NSC we’ll be listening for President Biden to talk about one of his signature policy achievements – our country’s historic investments in job creation and Infrastructure through three new federal laws – the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Addressing our crumbling infrastructure and modernizing it is a topic that resonates with the public. Americans of all political stripes are concerned about the state of the nation’s roads and bridges, public transportation, and the shift to renewable energy and green technology – as well as the job creation and economic growth spurred by the investments.

Recently, National Skills Coalition and BlueGreen Alliance commissioned a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Political Economy Research Institute that found the new laws are expected to generate 2.9 million total jobs per year – and that sixty-nine percent of those jobs won’t require a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the study anticipates a labor shortage of 1.1 million workers because, without additional investments in training and supports, our workforce lacks the access to the skills and training they need to get these infrastructure jobs – and businesses won’t have access to a pipeline of skilled workers.

Accordingly, we’ll be listening for the president to address this pressing need to train workers to fill the jobs created by these laws as they’re implemented. In particular, these infrastructure investments have the potential to create job opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds and communities. However, access to training and education can be a barrier for many, especially for women, people of color and people without any training beyond high school. By highlighting the need for training workers in his State of the Union address, the president can underscore his administration’s commitment to expanding opportunities for all Americans in an equitable way – in line with his 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.

Closing the Digital Skill Divide

If the president does mentions skills training – we hope he’ll also mention digital skills and how important it is to invest in closing the digital skill divide. According to a recent analysis by National Skills Coalition and The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta ninety-two percent of jobs now require digital skills of some kind. There’s strong demand for digital skills across every industry and in almost every occupation, including entry-level and frontline positions at small, medium, and large businesses. And it’s highly likely that at least some foundational digital skills are necessary for most of the jobs being created by the new infrastructure law. That’s why the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act was passed as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – it’s funding to advance digital equity among populations most impacted by the digital divide. We’ll be listening for President Biden to signal support for policies that guarantee foundational digital skills for all, lifelong upskilling opportunities for current workers, and rapid re-skilling for workers who’ve lost their jobs. Related: read the president’s Executive Order on AI (Artificial Intelligence).

Broadening the Path to Postsecondary Education

Of course, the place where workers will likely train for digital skills or infrastructure jobs is at their local community college or other local training program – often in partnership with local businesses looking to hire. So, skills advocates should have an ear out for policy proposals that aim to widen the path to postsecondary education, begin to redress structural racism in our education and training systems, and makes college work for everyone – for new majority learners, for business, and for our economy at large.

Our Making College Work Campaign is pushing for reforms that would:

  • Cover the Costs of College: increase equitable access to financial aid and debt-free postsecondary pathways leading to economic mobility – including high-quality, short-term programs and pathways.
  • Support Students Holistically: ensure all students have the support they need to access and complete college – including access to public benefits, childcare, transportation, coaching, and navigation services.
  • Strengthen Partnerships & Create Career Pathways: support industry partnerships with community colleges and career pathways programs that lead to quality careers.
  • Use Data to Drive Equity and Outcomes: ensure equity, quality, transparency, and accountability through improved data collection, analysis, and reporting.

Creating an Equitable, Resilient Workforce

Although we don’t expect the President will dive into details about how to strengthen our public workforce system or mention the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – it would hearten and inspire business leaders and skills advocates alike to hear language about investing in a dynamic and inclusive workforce system that’s equipped to address structural inequities in our labor market and adequately resourced to give workers and businesses access to the skills training they need – so that workers, businesses, and our economy are resilient in the face of future economic shifts.

Our coalition has been leading the conversation about how policies that improve access to skills training can contribute to an inclusive economy and to an equitable, inclusive workforce system that works for the people and businesses that need it most. It’s thanks to your ongoing advocacy that President Biden, the White House, the administration, Congress, and federal policymakers in every agency are well-briefed about the skills training that jobs that are at the backbone of our economy. Stay tuned to NSC’s channels during the State of the Union for reactions and opportunities to turn up the heat on our skills advocacy.