Is it too late for Washington to invest in our workforce recovery? Not yet, but the clock is ticking

By Katie Spiker, March 03, 2021

Depending on who you ask, as few as 10 million and as many as 20 million of America’s workers are currently unemployed. At least one-third are long-term unemployed, or out of work for more than six months. Further, at least 5 million workers have dropped out of the labor force completely. And job loss has disproportionately impacted workers of color, women, and workers without a college degree. Too many are still struggling to make ends meet nearly twelve full months into this global pandemic.

The debate on Capitol Hill over the White House’s $1.9 trillion recovery package is still ongoing. But even as people wait for that much-needed relief, our economic future must also be under consideration. Namely: Are we prepared to put people back to work in the jobs that will fuel our recovery? And will that recovery be equitable – shared by those hit hardest by the pandemic and historically held back by structural barriers?

Skills training – and supportive services that help workers succeed in those programs – will play a critical role in our recovery. To ensure a truly inclusive economic recovery, we must ensure equitable access to training programs and the communities they serve.

Washington needs to recognize these workforce priorities, before it’s too late.

Retraining to reenter the workforce

After the Great Recession, 98% of new jobs created required some postsecondary education. But approximately 40% of currently unemployed workers have no education past high school. Additionally, millions of workers will not be able to return to the same jobs or industries they worked in before the pandemic. These workers will all need retraining to reenter the workforce.

Earlier relief packages have failed to invest in reskilling workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. For these workers, their recovery depends on a significant investment in training for new jobs. This is especially true for those who will be a part of the workforce tasked with rebuilding our infrastructure.

This means investing in training programs for workers who have lost their jobs. It also means making high-quality, short-term programs at community and technical colleges eligible for tuition aid. These short term programs will help workers rapidly reskill and upskill to fill positions businesses have open today.

Publicly funded job creation – that supports skill building

If it feels like you hear about infrastructure all the time, there’s a good reason for that: it’s in poor condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a C-, with elements suffering “chronic underinvestment and… in poor condition.” We are in dire need of upgrades, improvements, and maintenance.

Federal investments in physical, digital, and clean energy infrastructure are not only necessary, but could create millions of jobs. But the workforce needed to take on a nationwide effort of this magnitude does not exist… yet.

Any publicly funded job creation must be coupled with dedicated, comprehensive training that focuses on communities most impacted by the pandemic. In addition, funding for supportive services that help students access and complete these programs is essential.

Averting layoffs and promoting upskilling

The pandemic has also disproportionately impacted small and mid-sized businesses. They’ll need support to avert layoffs and keep their employees paid. Additionally, these businesses need access to resources that help them upskill their current workforce. This helps businesses remain competitive and productive, while also ensuring workers can stay – and advance – in their own careers.

Local, industry-specific training

As the economy recovers, demand for trained workers will increase. But that demand will be uneven and will vary by sector. Investing in industry-based training models will help workers, businesses, and communities adapt to a changing economy. This means ensuring models are developed together with local businesses, training providers, and advocates so that they properly reflect the local economies they serve.

Important to this process is increasing access to these programs to workers of color, immigrants, and women. Any public investment should include resources, technical assistance, and policy guidance that advances racial equity and inclusion in the companies who benefit.

Digital access and learning, at home and on the job

Even before the Covid-19, it was apparent that American jobs are undergoing massive technological transformation. Digital skills are now entry-level competencies for new hires and incumbent workers in many industries. The pandemic has only accelerated digital demands in the workplace, forcing workers at every level to adapt to new tools. We must expand digital learning, both at home and on the job, where training resources are not immediately available.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the dramatic digital divide facing students and workers, with racially inequitable financial consequences. We must make sure everyone can succeed by ensuring this digital learning is high quality, equitable, and inclusive.

Is it now or never?

America cannot train its way out of an economic crisis. Nor can skills policy alone shoulder the weight of a more inclusive economy. Still, skills policy has an essential role to play and must be part of our nation’s path forward.

Investments today put us that much closer to a shared recovery, for workers and local businesses and economies. But the clock is ticking, and inaction means America’s workers are being left further and further behind.