When We Upskill the Workforce, We Need to Bring Everyone Along

By Matthew McMullan
Sep 11 2020 |

A new policy paper lays out what should come next for the American labor pool

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Who is getting hosed, economically, by the pandemic?

We all are – well not everyone, if you’ve got enough money to buy stocks you’re likely doing fine – but some are getting hosed more than others. If you’re a woman, or a Black or Brown person, evidence shows you’ve lost income because you’re more likely to have worked in an industry that has been slowed by COVID-19.

It’s not a good time to be working in the service, retail or hospitality industries. There are tens of millions of unemployed people right now, and the weekly jobless claims suggest that the jobless rate is going to substantially improve anytime soon. A lot of the jobs that disappeared at the pandemic’s onset are going to remain disappeared, and the workers who used to do them are going to have to find new work, or work in a field they aren’t prepared to enter.

2020! What a great year!

A few months ago, before Congress and the Trump administration had made it clear that no new economic relief would be coming before the federal elections in November, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) sent a letter to Capitol Hill offices, urging members of Congress to include job-creating industrial policy in its next big relief bill. That remains a good idea, even while Democrats and Republicans point fingers as to why they can’t cut a deal.

Here’s another good idea for whenever Washington decides it’s time to allocate resources again: a comprehensive skills policy agenda that will make sure the workers most impacted by the pandemic are prepared for the new economy. And not just the newly reshaped economy that will have less jobs sorting clothes at Marshalls or making sandwiches at Subway; but jobs that are sustainable, that you can build household wealth upon.  

The National Skills Coalition (NSC, and full disclosure: AAM President Scott Paul is a board member) has laid out such an agenda in a new paper, and here it explains its reasoning:

In their initial response to this recession, policymakers have made the same mistakes. After months of debate and several trillion dollars of federal expenditures, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Washington championed any major investments in worker skills to make sure those most impacted by the COVID-19 Recession can train for jobs created with federal stimulus, can develop new careers in other sectors as their industries permanently downsize, or can gain the new skills required to participate in our now rapidly accelerated digital economy.

In responding to this economic crisis, we can do better. We have a chance to get it right, to empower workers and businesses failed by our past, so they might shape and benefit from the growth of America’s economic future. A pragmatic, inclusive vision for skills policy is essential to that future. Not only do the businesses, labor-management partnerships, colleges, community organizations, and workforce and education experts of (the National Skills Coalition) recognize this fact. So do America’s working people. It is no wonder that 84 percent of unemployed voters want policymakers to immediately increase investments in training to support their journey back into the workforce.

Here is the NSC’s skills policy agenda, in eight parts:

  1. Remove barriers to our nation’s safety net for all workers, including those impacted by the pandemic, and make it a foundation for new career pathways.
  2. Guarantee income, healthcare, training, and re-employment support for any worker who loses a job due to economic disruptions such as pandemics, automation, or trade.
  3. Ensure job creation efforts, such as those around infrastructure or an expanded public health workforce to fight the pandemic, include investments in skills that expand access to long-term careers for local workers.
  4. Subsidize small and mid-sized businesses to avert layoffs, keep their employees paid, and support their re-training during down time.
  5. Support the partnerships that communities need to develop training strategies targeting the specific needs of individual industries and the local workforce.
  6. Eliminate barriers by making high-quality digital learning available to all workers.
  7. Increase system capacity and expand access to high quality, industry driven education and training that prepares workers for good jobs.
  8. Report data on how different workers and businesses are faring in the recovery and hold policies accountable to equitable outcomes for those most impacted.

Some of these points are very ethereal and general while others are quite specific, but all are intended to improve the skill set of the American workforce and make sure that much more of it benefits from the economy recovery efforts to come. Read more about the National Skills Coalition’s new skills policy agenda here.