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NSC’s Chief of External Affairs, Rachel Unruh, joined UK radio show #SkillsWorldLIVE on Wednesday to talk about advocating for racial equity in workforce development and what’s needed to help the US recover from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can listen to her interview (starts at 54:10) and read a transcript of the conversation below.
TOM: Now Rachel, obviously as an American citizen living in Chicago, you must also have been looking and observing what’s going on in your country, and feel that there’s probably a lot of soul-searching going on right now in the US.
RACHEL: Yeah, absolutely Tom. You know, our country has a history of institutionalized violence against Black people and other communities of color, and really in every single state right now, in cities like Chicago, folks are trying hard to exercise their first amendment rights through peaceful protest and demand an end to that history. And we know that involves changes to things like policing and criminal justice – but also to the web of policies that have perpetuated inequity in our country, and I think that includes everything from voting policy, health policy, trade, environmental, and even workforce policy, because nothing is untouched. And so at National Skills Coalition we’re really committed to working to change the racial inequities within workforce policy.
TOM: Sure, in many ways there was always that fault line in American public policy and politics and in wider civil society, and, of course, when you add on top of that the pandemic, the 33 million people that have joined your unemployment insurance lines in the last few weeks, it’s a terrible cocktail, isn’t it, of negativity going on right now.
RACHEL: Yeah, it really is. You know, we are experiencing record unemployment like in a lot of countries. But in our country, because of our history and these systems, the economic impact of all the job loss and reduction of work hours is really disproportionally being shouldered by Black and Latino workers. Some folks are going to have a chance to return to their old jobs, but a lot of folks are going to need an opportunity and support to retrain for a new career, and we’re really committed to making sure that happens.
TOM: Well let’s bring that back to being a little bit more on point in terms of your role at the National Skills Coalition. I’m very aware of your work, the wonderful work that you do across all the states, and you advocate for a lot of organizations and you share best practices. What have you specifically got planned at the National Skills Coalition as you, hopefully, look towards the post-Covid recovery phase, from an employment and skills perspective?
RACHEL: We’ve talked to a lot of folks across the country and we’ve come up with a set of things we feel like both the federal, state, and local governments need to be working together to do to get folks back into jobs. We know skills training is not some kind of magic bean that’s going to help us train our way out of a recession.
TOM: Yeah, that’s true.
RACHEL: But it’s really going to be important. So we’re really looking at what elected officials can do, which is, first and foremost, making sure folks basic needs are met because you can’t get into a new job or train for a new job if those basic needs aren’t met. And we’re really look at ways that elected officials can help small businesses stop further layoffs and use the downtime right now to train their workers and upskill them for when things pick back up. And really we’re looking at the ways we can create good jobs coming out of this through things like massive infrastructure investments. But what’s really important about that is if we don’t include really significant investments in our workforce system, the system that is there to help people retrain for jobs that are currently in demand or jobs that we create, those jobs aren’t going to be available to folks.
TOM: Yeah, and just on that, a final question because we’re coming to the end of the show unfortunately… talking about jobs that potentially can come back, talking about where those new jobs and openings could be found – do you think America, like other countries like mine here in the UK, need to perhaps look at the experience of the 1930’s depression and come up with a Roosevelt-style New Deal program? We’re talking about a massive investment, as you’re indicating in infrastructure projects which, in the 21st century sense, could be things like greening our economy and those green jobs, the more carbon-neutral jobs – would the National Skills Coalition call for that kind of massive intervention at the federal level?
RACHEL: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re really, as you say, thinking about infrastructure broadly because it includes things like roads and bridges which we need in a traditional infrastructure sense, but also things like broadband. You know, the digital divide has been a huge challenge for folks who’ve tried to continue their skills training during the pandemic. And also things like you stated – a clean energy infrastructure; retraining folks who’ve been in traditional energy industries for these clean energy industries. But that is really the key: we can’t really have these investments in roads and bridges and broadband if we don’t couple them with investments in training people to do those jobs because otherwise it’s job creation without investment in people to do the jobs.
TOM: Rachel Unruh, Chief of External Affairs at National Skills Coalition, talking to me from her home in Chicago. Thanks for your patience and bearing with us this evening. Great to have you on, hope we talk to you again very soon.
RACHEL: Thanks, Tom.