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A Gold Medal Workforce Investment for a Gold Medal Economy

Suni Lee’s journey to become a 2021 gold medalist in the women’s all-around competition is a classic American success story. From her family’s ordeal as refugees to overcoming injuries and family tragedy, she defied the odds to claim her spot as the world’s best. Beating those long odds was no chance event. It involved a lot of determination, resources, and Olympic-caliber routines. Lee’s Hmong community knew this, too, and stepped up to help through annual fundraisers. Imagine if she had not had that support from her community, had not had the resources she needed to train and work on her skills. Would she still have won gold? Highly unlikely.  

Getting good results despite minimal investment is nevertheless a fantasy most politicians seem to cling to when it comes to our workforce. Search for the phrase “We have the best workforce in the world,” and you’ll find that it’s on the lips of leaders on both sides of the aisle. And yet, over the past two decades, these same leaders have overseen stunning disinvestments in the training and development programs that are critical for sustaining a prepared workforce. According to the National Skills Coalition, U.S. Department of Labor workforce programs have been slashed 40 percent since 2001. In the same period, the funds for career and technical education have been cut by 28 percent and those for adult education by 18 percent. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) reports that U.S. public spending on workforce training in 2018 ranked 28th among 33 OECD countries. How big is the gap to the top-investing country? That year, the U.S. spent .03% of GDP on training, while the leading country, Austria, spent fourteen times that much. 

Let’s face facts: the U.S. doesn’t invest enough in our workforce, and it shows: millions of Americans are unemployed and yet companies cannot find workers with the right skills for available jobs in the skilled tradesmanufacturing, and healthcare. Precisely the industries that we are depending on to get us out of our current health and economic crises.

A solution from Congress may be to finally approve an infrastructure package that includes significant investments in America's workforce. Connecting those two priorities is important: our workforce must upskill and reskill if we are to complete the many new infrastructure projects this nation so sorely needs. And if the final bill follows the lead of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, it will direct additional resources toward our broader workforce system that can prepare people for the jobs that are most likely to emerge as the economy recovers. 

While new resources for workforce training are important, more than money is needed to get us to a gold medal-worthy workforce system. Just as it would make no sense for Suni Lee to train as if she were competing against Nadia Comeneci (her 1970s-era equivalent), we need to confront the hard reality that our workforce development system is currently designed for the needs of a century that is very much in our rear-view mirror. 

The future world of work and the pressures of global competition demand that we think differently about how we develop the workforce. We need a system where there are incentives to innovate, consider long-term economic development needs, correct for the inequalities that are “baked in” to our existing labor market, and support the economic mobility of individual workers. We also need to incentivize partnerships among employers and educators so that we can move toward a more vibrant “learning ecosystem” in which formal education and workforce development are well aligned. 

Experts have proposed important strategies to reach this gold-medal “learning ecosystem,” many of which are reasonable and eminently achievable. For example, in addition to increasing funding for workforce development: 

  • Build needed supports for lifelong iterations of work and learning. These include resources for learning (as well as sustaining income) while a worker is engaged in learning and during work transitions, high-quality career navigation, supportive services, expanded integration of work and learning opportunities, and reimagined credentials that allow for shorter stints of learning that build on each other to unlock labor market opportunities.
  • Provide new funding to help the system recognize all learning a worker has acquired — whether that learning has come from a classroom, work experience, military training, or personal initiative. Not everyone needs to start from scratch.
  • Shift the paradigm from short-term transactions to longer-term investments. Workforce development programs today function like a social policy emergency room, providing short-term triaged services in reaction to a crisis. That mindset needs to expand to include preventive services and strategies that often will take longer to achieve than the short-term design of many workforce programs today. With respect to our current circumstances, our workforce training system should have resources not only to train people for infrastructure projects, but also to provide additional training and/or transition services once the infrastructure projects are completed. That way workers aren't left without jobs but could add to what they already learned in order to position themselves for other kinds of high-demand occupations, including green jobs, manufacturing, allied healthcare, and — as efforts to improve these occupations take root — caregiving.  
  • Address inequalities by ensuring that upskilling/reskilling opportunities are available to all. In particular, ensure that people of color get the encouragement, support, and training they need to prepare for jobs in high-demand 21st century industries. As several important pilot initiatives highlight, our workforce system’s ability to level the playing field and close equity gaps in educational attainment and employment should be part of how the system’s overall success and impact are measured. 
  • Challenge and support community collaboratives to deliver results. Collaboratives are inherent in effective workforce strategies, which require engaging diverse stakeholders spanning economic development, education, human services, business, labor, community-based organizations, and more to succeed. Too often, federal program requirements support the work of individual agencies and make it difficult to align the funding for collaborative ventures. 
  • Invest in R&D, continuous learning, and technology within the workforce development ecosystem. As workforce funding has shrunk over the past 40 years, one result has been a dramatic reduction in supporting the field doing this work. Significant investments are needed to ensure workforce development is being done by highly skilled staff using robust technology supports and continually adapting policies and practices through research and development.

We can have a gold-medal workforce. But wishing for one won’t make it happen. We must invest in our workers and help them gain the skills they need to support a truly winning economy — and we have to invest in the systems that will make that happen today and in the long term. Making the American economy a success story for everyone is not something we can leave to chance.  

Earl Buford is president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Larry Good is president and CEO of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW). The authors are members of the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) Taskforce, a coalition of more than 40+ leading practitioners and experts who believe that it is time to modernize the country's outdated patchwork of workforce policies.

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