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We Need a Moonshot for American Workers

  • Publication: 
    The Hill
    Date: 
    March 30, 2021

    We all know the reality: American workers are at a critical technical and psychological crossroads. By 2030, the effects of automation and the changing landscape of work may displace 400-800 million workers around the world. In the U.S., tens of millions may need to change occupational categories altogether. The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these transitions, with economists predicting that only 58 percent of workers are likely to return to their previous job — implying that, of the tens of millions of Americans who filed an unemployment claim in the last year, nearly half may be searching for a new job.

    President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus has begun the hard work of providing American workers with the support they need to address unemployment, income instability, and loss of benefits. The next step is to refortify these workers with the skills and networks they need for the jobs of the future. We need to figure out how to quickly transition manufacturers, travel agents, and secretaries — three of the fastest declining occupations — to solar panel installers, home health aides, and mental health counselors — three of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. This will not be easy, but it can be done.

    This effort must be grounded in a massive “America at work” program focused on two key aspects: transition vouchers and guaranteed jobs. While much effort has been put into increasing unemployment and raising the minimum wage, little has been done to actually figure out how to retrain and place our workers into new jobs post-unemployment. In fact, the U.S. spends about 0.1 percent of its GDP on retraining programs, which is one-fifth of the average expenditure for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is imperative we keep our workers growing and learning throughout their careers.

    Most retraining programs require a full-time commitment, a luxury many individuals stuck in low-wage occupations simply cannot afford. A mother of two working full time as a cashier at McDonalds cannot afford to lose any income as she studies to become a nurse’s aide. To create real opportunity for millions of workers, the federal government should provide transition vouchers to for-profit and non-profit training programs in the three fastest growing employment areas: healthcare, technology, and “green jobs.” These vouchers would be a pool of federal funding intended to provide living wages to individuals participating in effective workforce training programs.

    California has a state-level program called the Employment Training Panel (ETP). Begun in 1982, ETP reimburses employers for workforce training they themselves conduct. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that ETP was able to increase jobs at an employer site by an average of 22 percent after two years. In 2018, US News & World Report highlighted Sweden’s approach of building job security councils in partnership with industries and unions, that retrain laid off workers with skills that are in demand. One council they cited, TRR Trygghetsradet, had a 90 percent success rate, and 34 percent of those re-employed workers landed in jobs that paid the same or higher wages.

    But transition vouchers are not enough. Any program participant who receives this funding should be guaranteed a job at the end of the program, either through employer partners at the training organization or through public sector and federal jobs. This effort would be the largest public private partnership our country has ever seen. The public and private sectors must work together to consolidate current and future employment data and develop innovative technology-enabled job matching platforms. Such efforts are already underway with partnerships like Ascend in Indiana and Colorado’s Skillful program.

    Guaranteed jobs, while seemingly a moonshot for many policy thinkers, are increasingly becoming something economists are willing to consider, writes Eduardo Porter in his recent New York Times article on the topic. Most importantly, he notes, “in November, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a Gallup survey on attitudes about government intervention to provide work opportunities to people who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that 93 percent of respondents thought this was a good idea, including 87 percent of Republicans.” Americans are asking for what they need.

    America is home to some of the best talent in the world. It’s time to unlock opportunities through moonshot efforts that combine technological innovation, multisector partnerships and targeted public spending to tear down artificial barriers and stand-up workers. Only then can we build the inclusive economic and social systems we all know are possible.

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