The Recession Exposes the US’ Failures on Worker Retraining


Despite the soaring unemployment rate, many colleges and job training groups have yet to see a flood of displaced workers. In a way, that’s not surprising, given concerns about the safety of in-person instruction, the quality of online learning, and the lack of clarity on which jobs will recover from the economic crisis.

“Job seekers are hunkering down,” said Kevin Holt, director of the Ohio Means Jobs center in Cincinnati, one of the nation’s roughly 2,400 federally funded job centers. “They are frightened, they don’t have day care, they are hoping their unemployment will last them through this weird recession we’re in.”

That’s meant some groups and agencies that advance workforce retraining haven’t spent all the CARES money they were allocated early in the pandemic. The second stimulus bill, passed in late December, extended the deadline by a year, until December 31, 2021, for groups to spend those funds.

Avoiding Past Mistakes

But workforce experts say this picture of empty classrooms and enrollment offices may soon change—and education organizations must be ready. They warn against a repeat of what happened after the Great Recession, when an infusion of federal money ran out quickly, long before the recovery took hold. Job centers were “overwhelmed” with laid-off workers, and waiting lists ran into the hundreds, recalled Stephanie Beckhorn, director of employment and training for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

David Megenhardt, executive director of the United Labor Agency, which runs the one-stop job center in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, saw the same thing in his region. “In the Great Recession there were a lot of people who lost their prime earning years and maybe never returned to the workforce, or reentered well below the wages they were earning in 2008,” he said. “We don’t want to lose a generation of people.”

For now, some community colleges and workforce groups have ramped up short-term training to quickly get people into jobs that are available, in fields like logistics and food production. They are also doubling down on preparing people for career opportunities they’d focused on before the pandemic, such as health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

Project Quest, a San Antonio organization that offers multiyear career-oriented education, added shorter-term training this fall via a partnership with the city and other groups for people in professions decimated by the pandemic. Participants receive free tuition plus a stipend. Project Quest will also benefit from a grassroots effort designed to strengthen the city’s workforce development programs overall: In November, San Antonio residents voted overwhelmingly to approve a ballot measure to reallocate an existing sales tax toward helping up to 40,000 workers get workforce retraining or earn college degrees geared toward in-demand fields.

With money from the local county government, Lone Star College, which serves Greater Houston, rolled out noncredit programs for in-demand jobs that students could complete in less than three months. The free training focuses on preparing people for work in fields including accounting, welding, nursing, and information technology. The college tries to introduce students across all the programs to basic tech skills, said Linda Head, senior associate vice chancellor for external and employer relations. “More than ever before, the soft skills matter, and the IT skills matter,” she said, “so we had to integrate those.”

In Michigan, Beckhorn said her agency has used federal CARES Act and Department of Labor money to try to reduce the financial barriers that keep people from acquiring new skills. It recently helped launch Futures for Frontliners, which pays for Michigan residents who worked essential jobs during the pandemic to attend two-year colleges, tuition-free. The program is part of an effort to boost the share of people in the state who have postsecondary education to 60 percent by 2030, up from 45 percent in 2019.

Going forward, Deming, of Harvard, said he’d like to see a big federal investment in workforce development over the long term, with a focus on community colleges and other institutions he believes are best equipped to work with local industry to prepare students for in-demand careers. In the Great Recession, the government increased the size of federal Pell grants for low-income students, to help more Americans afford training. But it did little to help community colleges out of the financial pinch they faced because of falling state revenue, which forced those institutions to cut programs and seats. That meant that many students who wanted to retrain instead took their federal dollars to for-profit schools that have a poor record of graduating students and helping them into well-paying jobs, he said.

Keeping Up With Technological Change

Even with increased investment, community colleges and workforce groups may face challenges providing people the right skills, given the rapid pace of technological change and the opacity of what businesses are seeking, said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor and a cohead of the university’s Managing the Future of Work project.



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