Skilled America Ep. 9: Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery

By Rachel Unruh, October 29, 2020

Host Rachel Unruh talks with National Skills Coalition CEO Andy Van Kleunen about the state of our workforce, the lessons we’ve learned from the recessions of our distant – and not-so-distant – past, and how National Skills Coalition envisions an inclusive economic recovery that benefits every worker and every industry in the post-pandemic economy.

Listen to Skilled America wherever you get your podcasts

Link to listen to Skilled America on Apple Podcasts

Link to listen to Skilled America on Spotify

Link to listen to Skilled America on Google Podcasts

Link to listen to Skilled America on Stitcher



RACHEL: Hello, and welcome to Skilled America… a podcast devoted to the policies, politics, and people driving the discussion on skills in today’s economy.

I’m your host, Rachel Unruh, Chief of External Affairs at National Skills Coalition.

This is episode 9: Skills For An Inclusive Economic Recovery

As our country experiences the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression, a set of generation-defining investments in workforce development are becoming increasingly necessary to address millions of America’s workers whose jobs will not come back at the end of the recession… and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain communities, including – but not limited to – people of color, women, and immigrants.

The CEO of National Skills Coalition, Andy Van Kleunen, joined me to talk about the state of our workforce, what we learned from recessions of our distant… and not-so-distant past, and how NSC envisions an inclusive economic recovery that benefits every worker and every industry in the post-pandemic economy.

RACHEL: Alright, so Andy, it’s been seven months since the pandemic hit the U.S. and obviously it’s had a huge impact on the labor market. Let’s take a look at where we are right now and how we got here.

ANDY: Well, it’s no news to anyone that obviously we’re in still in the midst of one of the greatest economic infractions that our country has had. I mean, there’s really only been three times in the past hundred years where we’ve had a contraction like this. The Great Depression in the 30s, the Great Recession that we had back in 2009 and here in the COVID recession today. Obviously, throughout the news, we’ve been clear about what kind of impacts this has had on working people. Actually, much more devastating than anything that happened during the Great Recession. We had almost sixty million people who filed for unemployment during that period of time and while some of those folks have started to go back to work, the reality is that any week between here and the beginning of March has been worse than any week of unemployment that we had in 2009 and 2010. So, we have tens of millions of folks who are out of work. Many of them are now running out of unemployment insurance as we are getting to the end of October and we’re now facing a problem where there are businesses that have not just shut down temporarily, but have shut down permanently, and these impacts have been particularly focused on a number of different sectors. Hospitality, retail, food service, some parts of health care, and that’s just made this a very different recession than we had back in 2009. The problem now is that many of those who lost their jobs are not going to get back into those jobs because the companies they used to work for have gone out of business and are not coming back. And that has impacted specifically many low-income workers, particularly low-income workers of color, particularly women of color, and that is a totally different recession than we had back in 2009 and 2010. So, the challenge for us is, when the economy does return — and most economists say that we’re not going to get back to pre-pandemic employment levels until sometime in 2022 — What is it that we’re going to do to make sure that the folks who are now on the sidelines of our labor market who’ve dropped out of the workforce entirely, what’s our plan to get them back into the workforce recognizing that they’re not just going to be working at different companies but probably in entirely different industries than what they were working in as of February of this past year?

RACHEL: Given what you just described, what do you think has been missing in the national conversation about this labor market? And let’s start with media coverage. What story isn’t being told right now?

ANDY: Well, when the media, whether it’s kind of general media or the business media, is looking at when you’re in an economic contraction like this. When you’re having a recession. Everybody wants to figure out how is it and when are we going to get the economy back on track and there tends to be a kind of preoccupation on what the shape of that recovery is going to be. So, in most conversations it’s always been a debate about, is it going to be a V shaped recovery which means so the number of jobs has gone rapidly down and we have a rapid re-expansion, and re-employment of folks once the economy comes back online and the virus is brought under control? Is it going to be kind of a check mark or a hockey stick or W where we go up and down? And you know, these are all variations on the same thing, which is, we kind of think like the economy and everybody’s trajectory coming out of this recession are going to be the same.

But the reality is, is that there are some workers who are going to go back into their own jobs, back into their old industries, but there’s going to be a whole set of workers who are going to have very different experiences coming out of this recovery. Some of that’s going to be based on the industries in which they were working originally, some of that’s going to be based on the level of skill and education that they had when they lost their job.

We have women who are in a particularly difficult situation right now because not only are they out of work, they also don’t have any way to get any kind of childcare while their children are home. So, they are basically dropped out of the labor market. We basically have almost a million women in the country right now who have dropped out of the labor force since March, which means that they’re not working, and they’re not even looking for a job because they have no choice but to stay home with their children, or because they can’t find any viable employment prospects. And so, you know, looking at the various trajectories that are going to be facing different focus coming out of this recession, we as an organization want to figure out how is it that we can close those gaps.

And how is it that we can help different workers with different needs and different industries get back into the labor market effectively and where can investments in their skills be part of that solution. I should mention too, businesses are having different trajectories, as well. There are some large retailers who are doing even better than they were doing in March. We have lots of small retailers who have shut down and are never coming back. That’s just one example of where small firms are going to have a different challenge than many large firms coming out of this pandemic.

The closure rate for black owned firms is about 40% as opposed to the closure rate for white owned firms, which is about 17%. So, there’s even inequities within the small business community about who’s taking more of the brunt of the shutdowns that have happened over the past seven months. So, all of those things lead us to believe that unless you kind of get in under the hood and understand what’s going on with real workers in real businesses within specific industries and come up with strategies about how to invest in those folks overtime to get them back on track, we’re just going to leave a lot of them behind.

RACHEL: Let’s talk about lawmakers now. Obviously impact on the economy has been a huge part of policy conversations. But there are things missing from those conversations as well about the labor market. What’s missing from policymakers’ conversations?

ANDY: In hockey, if you’re trying to move a play forward, they say you should not skate toward the puck. You have to skate to where the puck is going to be. And right now, we have policymakers just focused on the puck, and we’re not thinking about the fact that we’re not looking ahead to how it is we’re going to get folks ready today for when the economy comes back. By the time employment starts coming back in late 2021 or early 2022, it’s too late by then to start to retrain folks to get ready for what those new jobs are going to be.

And so, we have basically will have left them behind. I think that the urgency of now is to get policymakers to start thinking about investing in the future of these workers who are now on the sidelines of this recession because if we don’t do it now, by the time we get to the end of next year, it will already be too late.

But obviously, even as we’re trying to get policymakers to think about investing in the future of folks who are on the sidelines of the economy, we cannot lose track of the fact that we have real human need that’s being faced right now. So, continuing expanded unemployment insurance, continuing income support, continuing all the other things that have been part of relief packages up until now – that has to be there because as we know, the economy is not going to be coming back for a couple of years. And some folks are going to be able to get new jobs within the next several months. And some folks will be on the sidelines for quite a while and so that always has to be a part of solution, even as we want to make sure that investments in skills training is also in the package.

RACHEL: So, you have mentioned the previous economic crises that our country has faced, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, what other things did we get wrong in those past recoveries in terms of our response?

ANDY: Yeah, I think that, you know, the main problem with this is there’s been an assumption that as the economy slows down and then when it comes back up, like everybody is going to get absorbed into that recovery. Or we’ve kind of just made some choices of winners, like folks that we think we want to particularly help to be part of that solution. Sometimes it’s been explicit and sometimes it’s been implicit.

So one of the things that we did say, post-World War Two, so you know after we shut down the wartime economy, there was a dip in economic growth in the US and that was where the GI Bill became a big part of how it was that we were going to take all of these folks that had been part of the wartime effort, as well as the rest of the country and kind of bring them into a new post war economy. And the GI Bill’s always held up as kind of a model for things that we could do at scale, particularly in investing in education and training of folks at a new scale than we’ve ever done before in the country, at least for post-secondary education. But the reality is that the GI bill really was explicitly focused on white returning GI’s.

Other white students, largely because of the schools that they could apply to, many of those private universities and even state universities had strict barriers for students and workers of color, particularly black students. And as a result, like that GI bill, which was a great response to the problem in some ways, it was only a response for a certain set of folks.

There were workers of color who did receive some kind of training that was not at a college and they did benefit from it, but it was very clear that we had created two different tracks for how it was and folks were going to benefit from the GI Bill. Similarly, when we look at the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010 there was a lot of focus about how to was that we were going to get folks who already had a decent job and who had lost that job back into the workforce, and so whether that was all of the construction workers who had been working in construction, had been laid off because we had a significant downturn in housing and other kinds of construction. How we want to get them back or mid-career professionals who had been working well in middle class jobs and higher and then suddenly lost their jobs.

There was a lot of focus on how it was that we could get those folks back into the labor market. There is a great amount of spending that happened within the Recovery Act on people who are going to go to a four-year college and we did a lot to kind of underwrite some of that, but by comparison, we did not do much on the training end. We did something and we should acknowledge what was done. But we did not do nearly as much as we did for more traditional students, and folks who are already kind of in a good paying job or in a well-paying career. And we also kind of picked the industries where we thought they were going to be jobs available. We did not really empower stakeholders on the ground, and businesses and labor unions and colleges and community organizations and workforce boards that kind of figure that stuff out on their own. We kind of picked a few winners at the industry level as well as at the student worker level and every time Washington does that, they’re leaving other folks out of the discussion, so we want to make sure here in 2020 going into 2021 that we’re really trying to create an inclusive economic recovery and that we’re setting up a number of skills policies that are going to be looking at the folks who’ve been most impacted by this pandemic, including lower income workers, including workers of color, including people who have always been on the margins of a good paying job in the labor market. And then we want to prioritize where it is dealing with their particular needs as part of an overall economic regrowth strategy, and that we’re not leaving it out and just assuming that they’ll figure it out on their own.

RACHEL: Are there any current signals that we might be getting it right this time, that we’re focusing more on skating towards where the puck should be going rather than skating at the puck?

ANDY: I want to acknowledge that you know, in the current conversations about what we should be doing in response to the pandemic, there has been some attention to investing in the retraining of workers. It’s just that been at a much smaller scale than anything we were talking about 10 years ago. Back in 2009, we spent less than a trillion dollars on recovery, but we spent 5 billion dollars of that on worker retraining. Currently we’ve already passed 3 trillion dollars and there’s ongoing discussions about what we’re going to be spending on top of that. But we’ve only had a total of 500 million dollars at most in terms of training of folks who have lost their jobs to get back into the labor market.

So, what we’re not getting right right now is scale — like we just need to scale up that response. It needs to be 3 times at least what it was back in 2009 because unemployment is at least three times what it was during the Great Recession. But within what’s been talked about so far, there has been some look at how it is that when we think about job creation, and we assume that there will be ongoing discussions in Washington about creating jobs, particularly for folks in these sectors that have shrunk down and may not be coming back, that we can’t just talk about creating jobs with also having a plan for how to train people for some of those jobs.

This is not, you know, we’re not going to be dealing with out of work construction workers getting back into construction jobs. We’re going to be dealing with retail workers and hospitality workers and folks who have been working in restaurants and how it is that we can get them into new occupations and new industries that they’ve never worked in before. One good example that we’ve seen so far is in the context of what we’re going to do with the public health workforce in response to the coronavirus itself.

And this has been particularly around contact tracing, so how is it that we’re working with different communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus and having folks coming out of those communities to be working with people to figure out who’s been infected, who they’ve been in contact with, and how is it we can use that as a way to reduce virus transmission throughout that community. We can’t do that effectively unless we’re hiring and training folks from those communities to be part of that workforce, and there has been discussion about at least making some investment in that particular workforce and training people for that particular workforce that we’ve seen in the stimulus conversations that have taken place so far. But that’s just one sector. That’s just one piece of the solution.

We ‘re going to need to have a much larger job creation conversation in this country. Some it’s going to be about investments in infrastructure or some of it is going to be about investments in other kinds of industries, and what we haven’t seen so far is how we’re going to be training folks for those jobs as well. So, let’s take the example that we’ve learned with the contact tracing conversation and I bring that up to our entire job creation strategy with hard-wired training as part of that solution.

RACHEL: How have we responded at NSC, both in terms of the crisis, and the lack of action?

ANDY: Well, so in September, we released a framework that we think is going to guide, not just our work, but what we hope is everybody who’s thinking about economic recovery policy that’s going to inform how they’re thinking about how we’re making investments in people as part of recovery. We call it Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery, with the idea that while we don’t think that skills is going to solve the economic crisis, we certainly think that it’s going to be part of the solution. And so we want to make sure that we’re talking about how it is that we’re creating education and training opportunities, particularly for folks who have been most impacted by this pandemic, economically, as well as from the health perspective, that we want to make sure that folks who are on the margins of good jobs and good careers prior to the pandemic are going to get a chance in this recovery to be part of the good jobs, they’re going to be created coming out of the economic recovery, that we’re thinking about recovery, not just in terms of getting folks a job, but where we’re getting them onto a pathway for long term careers. So they are going to be part of our productive workforce, not just over the next 12 to 24 months, but for before the duration of their of their working lifetimes.

And that we want to make sure that business is at the table, particularly local businesses are going to be doing the majority of hiring and rehiring and the recovery, that we have tended to kind of focus on our, our national and international companies, and kind of ignored where small and medium sized businesses within our local communities should be part of how we’re thinking about workforce development strategies and retraining strategies. And so we want to make sure that those local businesses are at the table to be thinking with education and training providers, and labor unions and others.

And we just want to make sure that whatever we’re doing in this economic recovery, that we’re tracking, who actually is being served and who is not who’s being included, and who’s being not how that works out based on income of workers, how that works based that on the race of folks whether or not they’re being included in good jobs or not how that works out in terms of gender, their education status, we want to make sure that everybody is going to have a chance to be part of this economic growth strategy for the US coming out of this pandemic.

That’s not going to happen on its own. Again, we’ve learned that from prior recovery attempts, we want to make sure that we’re being inclusive from the get go and using investments and skills as one of the ways that we’re going to enable that.

RACHEL: The skills for an inclusive economic recovery framework, it’s pretty broad and comprehensive. What are three things that could happen right now at the federal level to support an inclusive recovery?

ANDY: So, we’ve got eight different areas of policy that we’ve identified within that framework. And I would encourage folks to go take a look at it to kind of get a sense of the landscape. But if I were to pull out three of them, I’ve already mentioned one of them. But I will go back to it again, which is on the job creation front, making sure that we are training people for every job as we are creating with public investments. And there’s a range of proposals that we have in there about how to do that, as part of an infrastructure package, as a part of other ways that we’re thinking about job creation in the context of recovery.

There’s another key proposal or set of proposals in there around digital access and learning. So obviously, with many people staying at home and working from home, or trying to learn from home, the whole idea of digital access and the inequities that we have in this country, have just been put right in our face. And clearly, it’s something that is not just going to be a problem for this year, for the pandemic, it’s going to be a problem for folks moving forward. As a matter of fact, it’s not just an issue about who’s able to work from home versus not who’s going to be able to access education and training versus not, companies are making the decisions now that when they do come back online, they’ve realized that they can do things with less headcount than they ever have before. And so, they are, they’re also thinking about new applications to technology, the jobs that are even going to be coming back from your prior employer may be very different than the jobs you left back in March. And so the jobs themselves that are going to be coming back over the next two years, they’re going to be more digitized. We’ve often talked about the future of work as being something that over the next 10 years, we think that 60% of U.S. jobs are going to be substantially changed because of increasing technology and artificial intelligence, and digitalization, what folks are saying that those 10 years have basically been accelerated within the past within forthcoming 10 months, right? So 10 years and 10 months of change. That’s going to have an incredible impact on working people less we’re making a huge national investment now in digital learning and digital skills, along with broadband access equipment, access, all the other things that folks are going to be needing to be participating in this new digitized economy.

And third, you know, what we’ve learned, unfortunately, very painfully, for millions of folks in this country is that we have an unemployment system that is rooted in the mid 20th century, not the early 21st century. And the fact that we think differently about folks who lost their job because of a cyclical layoff versus whether or not it’s been because of trade, versus whether it’s become because of a virus or some kind of public health crisis, or whether it’s become because they’re working as a gig worker, and they just can’t find work, driving an Uber car or something like that. All of these folks are out of work, but we treat them all very differently when we think about how it is that we should be investing in their training and reemployment. So, we just need a whole reboot for a real 21st century unemployment and reemployment system in this country that is similar to what our economic competitors are doing all over the world. And we have a set of proposals in there about how we can start working on that in 2021. So heaven forbid, if we ever have a crisis like this again, we’re going to be not waiting for Congress to decide whether or not they’re going to add unemployment insurance or not, whether or not they’re going to extend or not, we already have an automatic system that’s in place to get people reemployed that will help employers keep their current workers on payroll, and continue to train them so that they’re ready for when the economy comes back, a whole set of things that we kind of were trying to figure out as we went along here in 2020, we don’t want to be in that situation, again, moving forward.

RACHEL: Obviously, what Congress decides to do has a huge impact on what state policymakers can do. So, what could Governors be thinking about right now to support inclusive economic recovery?

ANDY: You know, sometimes issues when they kind of are debated within Washington, there’s a lot of partisan position-taking that is not really grounded in the reality of what’s going on, on the ground in local communities and local industries. There are governors, both Democratic and Republican, who’ve kind of figured out how to better align education and training investments with industry means how it is that we brought different players together, how we’ve gotten the labor agency to work with the education agency in the social service agency, if that’s what’s needed as part of a an Employment and Training strategy. And so that’s all so that we have a lot of good state models on the ground that we have often tried to lift up from both Democratic and Republican states to guide some of the conversations in Washington.

The challenge is that now in this pandemic, because state budgets operate in a different way than the federal budget does, we just know that there’s going to be states are going to have incredibly constrained resources over the next year or two. So even though they might have really good models for how it is that they would be wanting to retrain and get folks back into the labor market, they’re not going to have the resources. So what we would say to governors is: Republican and Democratic governors, you should come together and put some pressure on DC to pay attention to what you’ve been doing in your backyard and get them as part of our stimulus investments to be investing in the kinds of things that we’ve been developing on the ground, with local industry, with your community college system, with industry partnerships that many of you have set up. And I think we can use the state model and a federal input of resources that allow the states that are ready to do the right thing to hit the ground running on that. For us, we think that would be one of the best ways for us to move this economy along in the next year.

RACHEL: What I like particularly about National Skills Coalition: Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery is that it’s both aspirational, but also achievable. These are really pragmatic solutions that could garner bipartisan support. So, what’s it going to take to make these sort of achievable goals in this framework a reality?

ANDY: Well, Rachel, you might be shocked for me to say that as somebody who works with you at an advocacy organization that we think that one of the first things we should make sure folks are doing is talking to policymakers about these issues. But let me reiterate that point, because again, policymakers are trying to deal with a lot of problems here in the context of this pandemic. We need folks who have been working for years in the trenches, investing in people’s skills, helping them advance towards a family supporting career, building out their companies, by investing in their people. We need those folks to be talking to Washington about how that needs to be part of this economic recovery effort. And so National Skills Coalition is going to be trying to create opportunities for people on the ground to have conversations with members of Congress and other folks in Washington to make sure that they are thinking about those investments and skills as part of this recovery effort moving forward.

I also just think that, you know, we also need to be working on with state local governments to make sure that they are ready to take advantage of whatever it is that Washington decides to invest in, in this effort going forward. And so I think there are many folks that are doing this work could also be making sure that their local governments and their state governments are teed up to invest in some of the best practices available helped develop over the years. So those are two things that I think are important.

I would hope that folks will reach out to National Skills Coalition if you’re interested in being a part of this. There are ways that you can find out information about what we’ve got planned. If you go to our website at, sign up for information about things that we’re going to be doing, particularly after the November election, to kind of frame where we think the conversation in Washington is going to be moving forward over the ensuing couple months and where it isn’t you could have an opportunity to be a part of that discussion to make sure that what we know that works in real communities in real businesses on the ground is informing what Washington is investing in, as we go into 2021.

RACHEL: Andy, you talked about the types of advocacy that folks can get engaged with to shape this conversation. And, you know, at National Skills Coalition, we have these four networks who we’re going to be mobilizing. Can you talk a little bit about those networks and for folks who want to learn more, how they can do that?

ANDY: So the great thing about national skills coalition is that we’ve been able to work with a range of different folks and a range of different networks from all over the country who have different concerns about how it is that we’re going to be investing in people, both as part of this recovery, but also just in general and how it is that we think about how we should be operating our economy in this country. And so those are networks that include business leaders who are who are working in local partnerships with others in their communities, and include state advocates that are part of our SkillSpan network includes working people themselves that have been connected to our Voices for Skills campaign, who have been sharing their experiences of what it’s been like to have a chance for somebody to invest in their skills and their careers, and to be sharing that with policymakers. And we want to make sure that all of those perspectives are brought to the conversation that we want to be having with Washington,

The other thing, too, that we should lift up is that the American voting public believes in what it is that the workforce development field is doing on these issues. As a matter of fact, in polling that we have done at NSC over the past year, it’s very clear that Democrats, Republicans, Independents all have thought that investing in workforce development, investing in skills, helping people move into new and better jobs as part of an economic growth strategy, is something that polls better than almost anything else that’s been talked about in the context of this past presidential campaign cycle. So the American public believes in this, the American public supports it and so any way we can lift that up, as well, to make sure that policymakers understand that it’s not just that we have the practical answers and technical answers for how to deal with this, this is something the US public wants us to be doing as a part of the recovery moving forward.

We’re going to have an event after the election that’s going to reveal some of the specific things that we think Congress and Washington can be doing on these issues as part of our federal agenda for skills for an inclusive economic recovery. And we’re going to be bringing the perspectives of all those folks working people, business people, advocates, from a variety of different perspectives, labor unions, community colleges, others who all have something to share about where it is they think this agenda should be heading in the next several months in and what Washington should be doing to respond to it.

RACHEL: Well, Andy, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s exciting to think about what we can do with our networks going forward. Really appreciate you giving your analysis and insights into what we need to do as a country to have an inclusive economic recovery.

ANDY: Sure thing, Rachel, I really enjoyed in and I’m really looking forward to working with you and all of our members to move this forward in the next couple months.

RACHEL: To register for our post-election analysis webinar featuring myself, Andy, and representatives from across NSC’s networks, visit the link in the description of this episode or visit

If you want to learn more about our Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery, it will also be linked in the description, or visit… that’s C-O-V-I-D and the number 19.

Thanks again to Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of National Skills Coalition, for being on with us today.

Remember to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Our show was produced by Jimmy Donofrio, with help from Ayobami Olugbemiga, Ariya Sonethavy, and Imani Thaniel.

I’m Rachel Unruh. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time for another in-depth look at Skilled America.