Our job-training system is stuck in the 1960s. American workers deserve better
Workers who lost jobs amid the pandemic see the tides of economic change quite clearly. Will we be able to deliver better vessels to ride out the waves?
Director of the Project on Workforce, Rachel Lipson, writes for the Boston Globe on the US job training system: how we got here and how we move forward.
Our job training system is stuck in an earlier era and under-resourced. We rank second-to-last in OECD on spending on active labor market policies. We underinvest in community colleges which should be the go-to place for adult learners. And much of our system was designed for manual labor and trades, not for jobs in growing fields like healthcare and tech.
In the past, we’ve looked for temporary fixes to tackle the underlying structural problems, rather than rebuilding for the future. But the COVID recovery could be the turning point. Workers are not looking to return to the before. They see the tides of economic change quite clearly. And they are asking for better.
The workforce system is designed to be hyper-localized but the growth of hybrid and remote work models requires a more flexible and thoughtful approach to the geography of jobs. Equity should mean that opportunities to work from home shouldn’t be limited only to highly credentialed workers – many more workers want this option. But we’ll need to rethink how we approach and advise on job search by zip code.
“Human” skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership are in increasing demand as the economy changes. But they are also difficult to hone virtually. We need to invest more in how to build community and social connections, in person and online, for learning and work.
Jobs are part of a much broader opportunity ecosystem, which is highly unequal by race and zip code in America. Training and job search support are much more likely to succeed when basic needs like childcare, housing, access to mental health, and food security are met. The pandemic reinforces that investments in these services can make a big difference in educational and economic outcomes.
During the Great Recession, we made one-time investments in workforce but did not secure resources for the long run. Later, when unemployment reached historic lows, we missed a huge opportunity to rebuild and prepare for future disruption. This time can and should be different. Unemployment remains high and more workers are quitting their jobs than any time in decades.
Ultimately, it’s a question of infrastructure. Will we invest in the bridges to help people transition to better jobs on the other side, or will we leave them alone to face the currents?