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How government innovation could help America’s workers

May 21, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC
Students attend an NPower class in Alameda, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2017.
Anda Chu—Bay Area News Group via Getty Images

In 1957, the U.S. was caught by surprise after an increasingly hostile Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the Defense Department to create the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with the goal of creating advances that could keep us many steps ahead of global threats. 

The agency’s groundbreaking research and development led to scores of innovations—from stealth aircraft to the Internet to life-saving technologies now being used to prevent and treat COVID-19. Borrowing from this successful model, President Biden’s inaugural budget request to Congress proposes ARPAs focused on two other national imperatives: health and climate.

Today, the country faces another equally daunting challenge: Many millions of American workers are underemployed or unemployed, often for extended periods. It’s time to bring bold creativity and a new commitment to addressing this problem. Looking to DARPA as a model for public sector innovation, policymakers should create a research and development arm within the Labor Department focused on the American worker.

The extraordinary employment shock of the COVID-19 pandemic comes on top of a host of deep-seated problems. Our workforce has long faced a growing list of challenges: mismatches between workers’ skills and employers’ needs, racial and gender inequities, and the increasing difficulty of navigating a labor market being transformed by automation and globalization. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these issues, resulting in an economic downturn that has crippled the retail and hospitality sectors. It has also accelerated the adoption of new technology, with economist David Autor characterizing the pandemic as an “automation-forcing event.” 

We don’t typically think of R&D as addressing social challenges such as these. But today, some new approaches give us a glimpse of what’s possible with creative experimentation. New types of apprenticeships designed for today’s information-intensive jobs are now helping some workers to develop in-demand skills. 

The Back to Work Rhode Island Initiative unveiled a virtual career center, using real-time data to match Rhode Islanders displaced during the pandemic with career opportunities based on their specific skills. The nonprofit NPower offers training opportunities coupled with mentorship and access to job placement services, all specifically tailored to the needs of the individual worker. 

These efforts show that rich new data sources, advances in data analysis, personalization techniques, and new training insights can be turned into fresh, practical solutions for workers and employers. But they are occurring only in some regions for some kinds of jobs, and few of these approaches are scaling. Collectively, they are not turning the tide of our vast and varied national-scale labor challenges. 

We need a bigger, bolder approach that reaches beyond our current structures and practices. An ARPA for the American worker could help chart a different kind of future for our workforce, creating breakthroughs that can unlock the fuller potential of America’s workers.

We can see a host of possibilities for the high-impact programs that this new Labor Department entity—call it ARPA-L—could undertake. It could develop and validate new methods for skill mastery and credential acquisition that are more effective and faster, but at a fraction of today’s costs—an advance that would directly address the barriers to scaling. It could create and test tools that tap into real-time data about employment and hiring trends, providing workers in transition with practical, personalized pathways to career opportunities. And it could explore new ways to use troves of data to drive more targeted, timely, and impactful investments in education and workforce development by policymakers, community colleges, and employers. 

ARPA-L would be responsible for identifying specific promising opportunities and then designing and executing its programs. Each program would fund and integrate applied R&D, pilot projects, and thorough evaluations to convincingly demonstrate a major advance. For this mission of bold and rigorous experimentation, the agency would have its own funding and governance within the Labor Department. 

Every day at DARPA, a cadre of public servants goes to work to imagine and then create the breakthroughs that can lead to radically better outcomes in national security. It’s time to build a team just as dedicated to radically better outcomes for America’s workers. 

During the presidential campaign, President Biden pledged to invest more in federal R&D, engaging federal agencies as partners with industry in establishing a national technology and innovation agenda. One of the best uses of new federal R&D would be to address the challenges of America’s workers, providing dividends for our country long into the future.  

Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF.

Arati Prabhakar is CEO of Actuate and former director of DARPA.

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