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The Economic Recovery Requires A New Way Forward On Workforce Training

February 01, 2022

The following is from Forbes

The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has the potential to open up life-changing job opportunities to more people and drive critical improvements to our physical infrastructure that will help grow our economy and improve our quality of life.

Unfortunately, I think the odds of success are stacked against the ambitious plan passed by Congress. Why? Remember the old adage, “Where there is a will, there is a way?” Well, we have the will — roughly $1 trillion’s worth — but are well short of being able to find the way.

We do not have a national strategy for quickly and equitably preparing our workforce to take advantage of these new jobs that will build our future. For workers who have historically been excluded from good jobs that pay enough to support their families, namely people of color and women, access to quality education and training for good jobs is a matter of economic security and mobility. For employers, who are struggling to fill 10 million open jobs, access to a larger pool of skilled workers allows businesses to stay competitive in a growing economy (and weather supply chain fluctuations). The missing link is the huge disconnect between what higher education teaches and what employers need. 

I believe we need to refocus on connecting motivated workers and growing companies to equity-driven career and technical education (CTE) options. As the president of an organization that works to improve postsecondary outcomes for students through a variety of approaches, including CTE, I've seen firsthand how these programs can be beneficial.

CTE is not a new concept, but it should receive renewed focus as we rebuild. Often housed at community colleges, CTE programs train and prepare students for careers in manufacturing, green jobs, information technology and healthcare, among other critical sectors that will fuel our future. But full-time enrollment at community colleges is down almost 10% this year, much higher than at other undergraduate institutions, signaling that fewer prospective students may be pursuing CTE credentials. 

Even before the pandemic, CTE programs struggled to extend a ladder to the middle class to all students: Research shows that CTE’s history of vocational tracking has concentrated people of color and women in pathways that lead to lower earnings, such as consumer sciences. We all benefit when all students have better access to the training and education they need. When a single mother, for instance, completes an associate degree, she will make about $256,000 more over her lifetime than she would with just a high school diploma. She is nearly half as likely to live in poverty, contributing more in taxes and relying less on public assistance programs.

Ensuring that all students are matched with the education and training they want and need is not just crucial to an equitable economic recovery, but also solves a demographic challenge facing our workforce. While many jobs that pay family-sustaining wages require some form of postsecondary education, projections show that declining birth rates will produce fewer high school graduates. We can fill key labor market gaps now by investing in postsecondary CTE for the roughly one in three (28%) adults in the United States with a high school diploma or less who might be interested in a career pathway that leads to higher earnings. 

Central to a national strategy should be an emphasis on opening up these in-demand jobs to more women and people of color, who have been historically excluded from the good pay and benefits offered in these industries. Employers have a vested interest in a bigger, more diverse pool of trained workers. The manufacturing industry, for instance, will need millions of new workers over the next decade and is struggling to fill its current positions. By ensuring that our national training programs are accessible to women and people of color, we will not only see progress on long-stagnant gender and racial gaps in the workforce, we will be addressing an urgent economic dilemma facing employers and local communities.

Another key component of a successful national training strategy will be to embrace partnerships both within and across communities. Workers are ready to do the education and training that is required for good jobs that can help them provide for their families. Higher education institutions are primed to help those workers get the skills they need. Employers have openings that require skilled workers. State and local governments need thriving regional economies to grow and prosper. Within this ecosystem of stakeholders, our training strategy must consider and benefit all of these groups, or none will achieve lasting success.

The global nature of the economy offers even more opportunities for training U.S. workers. For example, in November, leaders from the United States and Switzerland agreed to expand apprenticeship programs among Swiss and Swiss-invested companies in the U.S.

What this underscores is that fixing the skills mismatch between U.S. workers and employers is not just up to businesses — or government or higher education or philanthropy — to solve. Successful solutions unite the needs and interests of all of these groups, even those that are often at odds, like unions and businesses.

The recent bipartisan infusion of investment into physical infrastructure jobs recognizes the scope of the task ahead. To meet the challenge of rebuilding — and to do so quickly and equitably — we need to scale what is working into a national strategy to prepare our workforce for the jobs we just invested in. We built the will together — and together, we can find the way.

By Peter J. Taylor, president of ECMC Foundation


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