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Making the Most of the Moment for Our Workforce System

Our country is now making plans to spend funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Recently, CAEL and the Brookings Institution hosted a webinar on expanding climate careers while implementing the Act. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, estimates growth of about 660,000 jobs could result by 2025, many of which will require specialized skills and industry-recognized credentials rather than a college diploma. As the Center for American Progress has said, the infrastructure package has the potential to effectively address climate change and “significantly expand pathways into good jobs for all working people through training programs that recruit and policies that can increase demand for underrepresented workers.” The vast majority of the jobs will be well-compensated due to Davis-Bacon Act protections.

Important considerations for planning efforts and related spending are contained in a series of six papers on workforce policies published last year by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW). Each was authored by different members of the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) task force, an ad hoc group established to conceptualize strategies on critical workforce matters for the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. The papers propose systemic approaches to updating and improving what the BETS task force sees as an “outdated patchwork of workforce policies.” These considerations are important both for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act spending plans and for potential investments in workforce training related to climate change industries in whatever version of a reconciliation bill might get through Congress this coming year. 

The messages in this series of papers are well worth reviewing: the need for a national jobs strategy, attention to the quality of jobs that are created, and the ways in which our workforce system needs to be reinvented and reinvigorated. (Among the publications’ authors are CSW president and CEO Larry Good and CAEL president Earl Buford, who co-wrote the paper on modernizing and investing in our workforce development system.) Below is a summary of three of the papers in the series that are particularly noteworthy for our current moment.

Building Back Better: A National Jobs Strategy 

Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education & Labor, Carl Van Horn, founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, and Michael Prebil, policy analyst with the Center on Education & Labor at New America, authored the series’ first paper, in which they advocate for a national jobs agenda that rests upon three pillars that prioritize both quantitative and qualitative standards for jobs:

Pillar 1: Make all jobs good jobs and create more. In addition to a “local living wage,” a good job must offer a stable schedule that provides ample opportunity to earn it. Benefits must include paid leave, a funded retirement plan, and health coverage. Replacing “bad jobs” with jobs that meet these criteria, the pillar posits, will require economic policies that invest in job creation and other wage- and benefit-boosting measures. (The series’ fifth paper also focuses on working conditions, benefits, and pay, arguing that good jobs are at the heart of economic recovery. Read more in To Build Back Better, Job Quality Is the Key. For a discussion of issues surrounding youth access to good jobs, see the sixth paper in the series, Building Back Better: A National Plan For Youth Employment, in which New America recommends specific government policies to increase access to quality employment and income for young people. 

Pillar 2: Facilitate access to good jobs. Even in booming economic times, some people who want to work cannot find a job, while some employers struggle to fill open positions even amid rampant unemployment. To address this shortcoming, the federal government should play a larger and more active role in connecting employers and potential employees. It can do so by subsidizing wages and investing in career counseling and skills training while easing obstacles to employment, including those that confront people with a record. 

Pillar 3: Eliminate racial and gender inequities in hiring, pay, and job quality.  An increase in the prevalence of good jobs won’t improve access to them without addressing discrimination and other problems that selectively harm workers. 

The paper asserts that all of the aspirations that comprise these pillars can be realized through regulatory and legislative action, discretionary investments, and executive orders. It goes on to distill these within five core strategies.

  1. Leverage the power of the federal government as investor, purchaser, and employer to create new jobs and improve the quality of existing jobs.
  2. Accelerate employment through active labor market policies, including national service, transitional jobs, and subsidized employment programs.
  3. Increase investments in apprenticeship, work-based learning, sectoral partnerships, career pathways, and other effective workforce development strategies.
  4. Strengthen enforcement of worker protections and update labor laws and regulations; prioritize racial and gender equity in enforcement.
  5. Support unions and other forms of worker organization that enhance job quality and advance racial and gender equity.

The details on each of these strategies and the rest of the paper are available within the full publication, Building Back Better: A National Jobs Strategy.

Building Back Better: A Jobs-Centered Infrastructure Plan

The second paper in the series cautions that a proliferation of sidelined workers could reprise the “lost decade” that resulted from the Great Recession. Noting that jobless recoveries disproportionately affect vulnerable and underprivileged workers, authors Carl Van Horn, of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, and Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Labor at New America, argue that policymakers throughout government should prioritize lessening this risk. They present three strategies for marshaling infrastructure spending toward job growth and quality: Investing in infrastructure jobs, creating emergency community service jobs, and community service priorities. 

  • Investing in infrastructure jobs is not as simple as a generic increase in spending, they argue. Rather, funding priorities should consider the long-term unemployed and those most disadvantaged, including minoritized workers. Education access, fair labor practices, and open and transparent bidding are also important to this strategy. 
  • Creating emergency community service jobs can be beneficial because such projects can provide employment and valuable experience to unemployed workers who may lack postsecondary credentials. This approach has proved effective before, including during the Great Recession when the federal government created some nine million public-service jobs for the unemployed. 
  • Community service job priorities for government investment would be those that address some of our biggest social crises today: a public health corp, early education and child care jobs, and a civilian climate corps.

Read the entire paper here: Building Back Better: A Jobs-Centered Infrastructure Plan.

Modernizing and Investing in Workforce Development 

In another paper, co-authors CSW President & CEO Larry Good and Earl Buford, CAEL president, outline the benefits of committing a long-term funding focus on workforce development in order to sustain an equitable ecosystem of lifelong learning and career mobility. They offer five recommendations for progressing toward that outcome. 

  1. Building and sustaining supports for lifelong iterations of work and learning is needed to take us beyond the standard lip service paid to lifelong learning, the authors argue. With adult learning needs no longer confined to those perceived to have “failed” in their educational or professional pursuits, the lines between learning and work are increasingly blurring. As such, our workforce system needs to center on “making the reality of iterating learning and work across a lifetime possible for every American, and celebrating that work is a positive strategy for success.”
  2. Finance workforce development through a co-investment model acknowledges the importance of federal investment in workforce development and calls for its increase. At the same time, it underscores the need for businesses to boost their own investments. Children’s savings accounts, workforce trust funds, and tax incentives for workforce education initiatives are among the recommendations. 
  3. Shift the paradigm from short-term transactions to longer-term investments addresses the need for workforce development programs to move beyond the “emergency response” mindset to capture the proactive opportunities that sustain a well-balanced ecosystem of work and learning. (The third paper in the series, Building a National Unemployment Insurance System, argues the long-term value of transforming today’s piecemeal approach to unemployment insurance into a nationalized unemployment insurance program.)
  4. Challenge and support community collaboratives to deliver results focuses on moving collaboration beyond what is mandated by longstanding federal workforce legislation. Mission-aligned stakeholders can be pitted against each other as they compete for funding, but by prioritizing outcomes, federal workforce policies can increase flexibility among local stakeholders and the synergies their collaboration creates.
  5. Invest in R&D, technology and continuous learning within the workforce development ecosystem cautions about the damaging effects of the 40-year decline in workforce funding. It argues for restoring capacity in the Department of Labor and related agencies, particularly in professional development, research and development, evaluation, and workforce technology/data infrastructure. Read the entire paper here: Modernizing and Investing in Workforce Development

As educators, employers, and workers face the challenges of a rapidly changing workforce landscape, these papers offer compelling recommendations on how to achieve systemic improvements to the U.S.'s “outdated patchwork of workforce policies.” CAEL will be revisiting many of these key issues in this year as it redoubles efforts to link learning and work in support of equitable economic opportunities. 

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