Workforce Update: The road from recession to inclusive economic recovery requires strong workforce data

By Rachel Vilsack, June 09, 2020

The National Bureau of Economic Research has officially declared what millions of displaced workers and businesses have been feeling since the start of the pandemic: America is in a recession and has been since February. Even though the economy added 2.5 million jobs in May – a trend that is likely to continue as states reopen and more workers return to their jobs – the road to a full, inclusive economic recovery remains long and steep. But we can get there, and the key to our success lies in strong workforce data.

Workforce data must be at the center of the policy response to the pandemic to help target resources to – and elevate the voices of – workers and businesses who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Workforce data will also help advocates and policymakers evaluate whether the stimulus packages actually lead to an inclusive economic recovery.


Unemployment Insurance data analysis

The Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims data from April shows that women, people of color, and younger workers are among those who have been disproportionately impacted by the current economic downturn. According to the Unemployment Claims Monitor – a tool by The Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which tracks weekly initial and continuing claims with disaggregated monthly counts by gender, race, ethnicity, age, and industry:

  • Women account for more UI claims (51.7%) than their share of the labor force (47.0%) in 2019.
  • Younger workers, age 25 to 34, are overrepresented in their share of UI claims (26.2%) compared to their share of the labor force (22.8%) in 2019.
  • Black or African American workers account for 14.0% of UI claimants; and Latinx workers account for 15.6% of UI claims.
  • Workers in two sectors – accommodation and food service (16.0%) and retail trade (11.0%) sectors – account for more than one in four total UI claims in April. These sectors typically employ younger workers.
  • Health care and social assistance, despite being a critical sector in the front-line response to the pandemic, accounted for the third-largest industry with workers filing UI claims, at 10.7% of the total.

The data also shows that monthly unemployment rates jumped for all genders and racial groups in April, but their pre-pandemic starting points were very different.

  • Unemployment for Black and African American women (4.8%) was nearly twice that of white women (2.6%) in February, on a seasonally adjusted basis. In May, the unemployment rate for whites dropped, but not for Black or African Americans.
  • Likewise, unemployment rates for Black or African American teens (age 16 to 19) in the labor force was more than double (20.4%) the rate for white teens (9.5%) in February, with both rates increasing in April. The rate for Black or African American teens continued to increase in May.
  • Latinx and Black or African American workers also make up a larger percentage of the jobs in the accommodation and food services – the sector most immediately impacted by the pandemic’s closures – than white workers.

Displaced workers need comprehensive re-employment support

Reskilling opportunities will be essential for displaced workers and the industries in which they were previously employed, as well as those who were unemployed prior to the pandemic. Several states have already launched new websites to provide a resource for their residents in connecting to online training options. Arizona’s Return Stronger Upskilling websites offers a one-stop resource for online career counseling or connecting workers to training, be it GED prep or industry-recognized certifications. Other sites, like Skill Up CT (Connecticut) and Get Hired IL (Illinois) are also offering their residents expanded access to re-employment support.

Access to programs to help train workers for the occupations that are and will be in demand as states reopen will also be important. Unfortunately, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, fell far short of the investments in businesses and workers that the current crisis calls for, especially for adult education. The HEROES Act makes no additional investments in the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), also known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title II program. Access to upskilling opportunities are critical for the one in five adults in the labor force with less than a high school diploma who were unemployed in May.


Measuring an inclusive economic recovery

Beyond using it to help shape polices that lead to equitable re-employment support, data will be integral to evaluating the success or deficiencies of stimulus strategies on meeting the needs of all workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Special attention should be given to the industries hardest hit by layoffs and closures, which desperately need community-wide support to get back to stable employment. Policymakers should also focus on communities of color and Indigenous populations who have faced structural barriers to education and workforce training and have been disproportionally impacted by the crisis.

This measurement could include analysis around what industries and displaced workers are returning to work faster, access to job training and credential attainment, and ensuring disaggregated workforce data is used to determine if all workers could equitably connect to new jobs in the post-pandemic economy.


How workforce and education advocates can get involved

States need more federal funding for workforce training in order to meet the needs of local workers and businesses in a post-Covid labor market. There are several steps that workforce and education advocates can take to ensure that federal policymakers understand the need for equitable and inclusive reskilling strategies.

  • Urge Senate leadership and appropriators to properly invest in workforce training as part of future stimulus bills. While the HEROES Act included a $1.6 billion dollar lift to the US Department of Labor’s WIOA Title I programs, the funding is well below historic investment levels and what is needed to support American workers. HEROES passed the House on May 15, but the Senate is unlikely to take it up in its current form.
  • Take action and join our coalition to stay engaged on how you can be a skills supporter in future stimulus bills and support data polices that will help us tell a complete story of our economic recovery.