Restoring the workforce to revive the economy

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A national advisory group charged with developing ways to better prepare workers for available jobs is putting a skilled workforce front and center in the country’s economic recovery.

During its virtual meeting on Tuesday, the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board — which comprises leaders from government, education, industry and labor — approved a “call to action” plan that focuses on three broad goals to ensure workers have the skills needed for evolving and emerging jobs as the U.S. economy prepares to bounce back after the coronavirus brought it to a grinding halt. They include:

  • Invest in career pathways and implement skills-based hiring practices.
  • Remove obstacles to foster innovation in education and training.
  • Build a better technological infrastructure.

“These efforts can help more American workers find new employment, regain their footing, and access the reskilling and retraining that will help build a durable career in well-paying fields like coding, engineering, healthcare, manufacturing, supply chain, IT, skilled trades and others,” said board member and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Related article: Workforce advisory board begins discussions

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who co-chairs the council with Ivanka Trump, expressed optimism that U.S. economy will quickly recover. However, the pandemic has yielded significant changes in the use of technology in work and education, which is changing what employers will seek in their workers currently and when the crisis subsidies, he said.

“This call to action is profoundly urgent, and this is just the start,” Ross said.

The secretary noted that it will be important to reskill displaced workers by providing better access to online tools and remote learning. That includes better broadband access, which has been a significant challenge for many students at community colleges and other schools. Advisory board members also noted the importance of including teens and young adults in new workforce development efforts, saying they could be particularly at risk during the recovery and become disillusioned.

Areas of action

Education and training providers must take the lead in quickly training and reskilling workers for new and in-demand fields, such as tele-help, IT technical support, logistics and supply change management, software engineering and more, Cook said in reviewing action items to implement the recommendations. Policymakers also must develop a “new generation of skills development pathways” that provide a more direct line to jobs, including earn-while-you learn opportunities, he said.

The council also called to nix unnecessary regulations that it said can impair workforce innovation.

“Efforts to streamline occupational licensing, education requirements, reduce the cost of licensing, and increase reciprocity will enhance mobility and prosperity,” according to the council’s five-page plan.

The federal government also must permit federal student aid for high-quality, short-term, market-aligned credential programs that stack into lifelong learning opportunities. Many education and workforce training advocates have strongly pushed for Congress to allow the use of Pell grants for certain short-term job training.

In addition, the advisory council noted that education and training providers must partner with government to promote high-quality educational opportunities by measuring and publishing outcome data. This includes measuring skill acquisition and allowing employers and learners to easily access them.

The group also called on education and training stakeholders to ensure that learners can easily transfer earned credits.

“This will allow working learners with accrued credits to earn degrees and certifications more immediately,” the plan said. “It will also create a strong foundation for lifelong learning and economic mobility for American workers.”

Examples from the field

Several council members provided an update of workforce development efforts at their companies or in their sectors. WSU Tech President Sheree Utash highlighted efforts in higher education in Kansas to engage more with business and industry in order to develop connections for better recruiting and retaining skilled employees and to create jobs and careers. Utash, who also serves on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors, represents the community college sector on the advisory council, along with AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus and Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), noted that this week he sent to the White House and congressional leaders NAM’s recommendations to bring manufacturers back to the U.S. Among them is ensuring that employers will have a skilled workforce, he said.

“Central to all this … is recruiting and training and retaining skilled workers,” Timmons said. “If we want to expand production here, we need people with the right education and the right skills.”

That was a major challenge prior to COVID-19 and it remains so even as unemployment has skyrocketed, Timmons said. It will be critical when the economic recovery ramps ups, he said, noting that certain tax incentives can encourage employers to use earn-and-learn models and other training.

“We believe any federal funds for worker retaining should prioritize customized training programs that companies design alongside local technical and community colleges, as we have seen (are) so incredibly successful,” Timmons said.

The advisory council also revisited its previously recommended idea for a so-called “Interoperable Learning Record (ILR),” which can serve as a way for learners to easily upgrade their attained education, training and work experience, and for employers to quickly assess transferable skills. Officials noted that four companies — Wal-Mart, IBM, Salesforce and Workday — have started pilots to test ILRs.

Wal-Mart’s efforts were highlighted at Tuesday’s meeting. The company, which expects to launch its ILR this fall, has identified three initial job positions to test: front-end team associate, front-end team lead and online grocery pickup team associate. The company is mapping out the skills needed for these jobs.

Ad Council campaign

In March, the council was ready to roll out an Ad Council campaign on workforce preparation, which was halted due to the pandemic. The group has since slightly altered the campaign to “reflect the new reality of the world,” said IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who serves on the panel overseeing the campaign. The council also will revamp the accompanying website that will provide information for students and mid-career individuals on career pathways, including apprenticeships, internships, certificates, associate degrees and more.

“Many of these pathways and programs have not received the attention they deserve, and they are really valuable now, given the situation,” Rometty said.

The new launch date for the campaign and website is mid-June. The advisory council will meet next on June 26.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.