Washington Watch: Policies for changing workforce needs

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Even before Covid, globalization and technological advances permanently changed the U.S. workforce. The pandemic turbocharged these changes.

In 1970, one in four jobs were in manufacturing; today, it’s one in 10. As automation takes different forms – robotics, 3-D printing, machine learning, nano technology and artificial intelligence – a greater array of jobs is susceptible to automation. Even so, not all jobs are equally at-risk. And, the pandemic has not hit all jobs equally.

Whether due to automation, the pandemic, related shut-downs and retrenchment, or both, workers at the lower rungs of the pay scale – disproportionately held by the disadvantaged and low-income – are most at-risk of displacement.

It is opportune that from a policy perspective attention goes to workforce needs in this changing economic environment. A confluence exists on the part of employers, workers, policymakers and even teenagers in their demand for career and technical education.

Federal investment

Federal investment in job training and education has not been consistent across the decades. Congress appropriated $14 billion for 43 employment and training programs across nine federal agencies in fiscal year (FY) 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office. This compares to $20 billion in 2009. Most of these are programs in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), though the departments of Education and Health and Human Services administer several of them. Funding for DOL programs remained stable between 1985 to 2000 at about $7 billion to $8 billion a year (in constant 2017 dollars). Since 2000, that level has been at $5 billion.

During this period, however, funding was not on auto-pilot. In the wake of the recent recession, Congress created the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. Congress more recently created the similar-but-smaller Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants program ($40 million for FY 2020 and $50 million the following year).

Rethinking workforce development

The pandemic’s effect on the scale, breadth and urgency of workforce needs merits a more comprehensive approach. The Hamilton Project offers just such a post-Covid proposal for a better workforce development system. The release of the proposal coincided with an event where a panel provided context for it and discussed its merits.

The speakers agreed on variants of the same theme. Worker skills and the workforce skills in demand are misaligned, and components of workforce development are disconnected.

Too few Americans have the skills or credentials to meet the demand (only half have any postsecondary credential) and many of the existing skills and credentials may not be valuable. The high school-to-college pipeline to the workforce is not aligned. Employers are disconnected from the re- and up-skilling of incumbent and prospective employees.  

Another important observation is that the disadvantaged and the dislocated are often the same group.

The central role of community colleges

The Hamilton proposal to “build a more coherent and effective workforce development system” that is more responsive to evolving labor demands focuses on public funding. At its core, this new system must serve the disadvantaged and the workers who are at-risk of being displaced. To achieve this goal, more resources are necessary for students and workers, as well as public institutions, for training and support services.

Two of the three major policies proposed involve postsecondary institutions, particularly community colleges. One seeks to reform and add federal funding to expand high-quality workforce programs, especially at public two-year colleges. The second calls to streamline and strengthen workforce policy in regional labor markets through a permanent TAACCCT program that would focus on partnerships between community colleges, workforce agencies, states and other stakeholders.

Adding modest taxes on worker displacement along with new funding for retraining comprises the third policy.

From proposal to policy

Among the specific Higher Education Act reforms proposed is expanding Pell Grant eligibility to students in shorter credit certificate programs. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) supports the JOBS Act, a bicameral, bipartisan bill that would extend Pell eligibility to both credit and non-credit programs that are 150 hours to 599 hours in length. Other proposed reforms include ideas that AACC supports, such as funding to expand student support services and access to apprenticeships, and establishing gainful employment regulations.

A top priority for community colleges is more federal investment in community college training programs. These include programs such as Perkins Career and Technical Education, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and TAACCCT or similar programs. So, the proposal to make the TAACCCT program permanent is most welcome.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.