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These bipartisan solutions can help ease America’s labor crisis

March 2, 2022, 11:11 AM UTC
Conservatives and progressives can agree to address the mismatch between education programs and the workforce training the job market requires.
JIM YOUNG - AFP - Getty Images

For a nation yearning to rise above partisan rancor, 2022 brings great opportunity for consensus in advancing the mobility and skills of the American worker. 

Progressives and conservatives, unions and industrialists, foreign policy hawks, and isolationists can all find common cause in the need for building a more competitive, skilled, and mobile U.S. workforce.

Whether you look at the economy and see a talent shortage or an opportunity shortage, behind both is a mobility shortage. The workforce we have won’t be the workforce we need unless workers gain skills and move ahead. Yet only 44% of those born in the late 1980s out-earn their parents, down from 90% for those born in 1940.  

Coming from our respective experience in politics, business, and labor market analytics, we see bipartisan possibility in making 2022 the Year of the American Worker, building the talent base America needs for global leadership while creating opportunities and equitable advancement for workers. 

It will be a challenge for U.S. employers to find workers for the foreseeable future. The pandemic boosted retirements by one million workers, while another 2 million women are estimated to have stopped working. Labor force participation is at the lowest level since the 1970s.

Our competitiveness is challenged by more than just sheer numbers.  New technologies are reshaping the skills workers need. Our research shows that, across the economy, a third of the skills required in the average occupation today are different from those needed just a decade ago.

Education and training programs have not kept up.  A nationwide ExcelinEd Foundation study of career and technical education (CTE) programs found that only 18% of credentials earned are actually sought by employers.  Meanwhile, in many critical occupations, there are too few graduates to keep up with expected growth.  For example, amidst widening supply chain disruption, only 10,000 logistics degrees are conferred each year vs. the almost 20,000 logisticians exiting the field annually and a projected growth of 56,000 new jobs over the next decade. 

Smart public policy could ease pain points for employers, enhance opportunities for workers who have historically struggled to gain ground, and strengthen U.S. competitiveness in critical sectors.  On the other hand, if handled poorly, the current moment could cause America to fall behind economically, technologically, and even militarily.

Pursuing four areas of broad bipartisan appeal can enable us to deliver on this promise.

Focus on the jobs that move the needle for American competitiveness. We can’t solve every labor shortage, but we can focus on the ones that matter most. To guide education and training investment, we need to know which jobs and skills are most important to key sectors. Specifically, which ones offer high value to workers, which ones pose a high pain point for employers, and which ones are of high strategic importance to the nation and its economy.

Prepare students for the jobs that matter. There is often a deep misalignment between what’s taught and the opportunity landscape for graduates.  Federally funded programs should be required to prove their commitment to high-value careers with hard data. This will ensure that public investment is focused on good jobs in critical industries and that workers are set on a better path for success.

Build the skills of our existing workforce. Both emerging and existing sectors demand new skills. Yet workforce training doesn’t currently qualify for federal student assistance. We can start by extending eligibility to programs that demonstrate labor market relevance, but which don’t necessarily lead to a degree.  More broadly, all workers need access to employer-funded lifelong learning accounts to enable them to pursue courses with a direct path to upward opportunity.

We can’t do this without our community colleges, but not as they are currently structured. We’ll need to refocus them on the workforce training they do best instead of on the general studies degrees that currently comprise 70% of their conferrals but which have less value in the job market.

Don’t leave anyone behind. Even before the pandemic, racial inequity dampened the economy by up to $2.3 trillion per year. Skills training can be an engine for equitable growth, creating new opportunities for women and people of color by helping them acquire the specific knowledge that unlocks opportunity.  A supportive policy regimen would extend skills-based hiring to federal contractors, casting aside the degree requirements that choke the supply of talent we need for American competitiveness. It would also invest in training programs that pull diverse workers towards critical jobs. Our nation can’t–and won’t–succeed unless we bring everyone along.

We believe these practical steps transcend the political divide. Efforts to enhance our global competitiveness and to ensure a better future for working Americans appeal to both parties.  Already Democrats and Republicans are partnering for critical R&D investment in U.S. technology leadership.  Focusing on the American Worker through the pursuit of such a strategy is good for employers, workers, and it will reinvigorate the American dream for decades to come.

Matt Sigelman is the president of The Burning Glass Institute and chairman of Emsi Burning Glass, a leading labor market analytics firm. Ken Mehlman is a partner at KKR and served as 62nd Chairman of the Republican National Committee. KKR is lead investor in Emsi Burning Glass.

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