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Five Steps Congress Should Take Now to Strengthen the U.S. Workforce

August 13, 2020

At a Glance

Facing a persistent pandemic and a changing economy, America needs a bold federal investment in workforce development initiatives. Policymakers must craft solutions that help the country survive the current crises and get on the path to an equitable economic recovery.

By: Policy Leadership Trust
Practices & Centers

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the threats to public health, the economy, and education are worsening. Our nation needs bold federal investment in talent development to combat the pandemic and address the massive upheaval in the labor market.

In March, as the novel coronavirus began to spread and the U.S. economy began to shut down, Congress took an essential first step and passed the CARES Act, which provided emergency supports to help people, systems, and businesses withstand the immediate impact of the pandemic. Now, however, it has become painfully clear that more substantial long-term measures are necessary. If left unchecked, the pandemic-driven crises could inflict lasting damage on the well-being and economic prospects of millions of Americans, particularly those who have been hardest hit, including people from Black, Latinx and low-income communities.

We urge Congress to pass a robust stimulus package to strengthen the workforce serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 response and help laid-off workers acquire the skills and credentials they need.

As community college leaders serving on JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust, we urge Congress to pass a robust stimulus package to strengthen the workforce serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 response and help laid-off workers acquire the skills and credentials they need to reenter the labor market. We also call on Congress to invest in skill development programs that help the country achieve the dream of becoming a more equitable and just nation by offering all Americans an opportunity to get on a path to economic recovery and advancement.

The Policy Leadership Trust urges Congress to pursue the following five workforce development solutions:

  1. A Frontline Futures Fund to invest in workers who are critical to the COVID response
  2. A Rapid Retraining Fund to help unemployed and vulnerable workers successfully transition to 21st-century careers and skills
  3. A Family Supportive, Learning-First Promise to provide much-needed support for student parents
  4. A National Broadband Plan to ensure that all Americans have reliable internet access for remote learning and work
  5. Greater investment in community colleges that is befitting of their impact on individuals, communities, and regional economies

This cannot wait another day. Congress must take action on these five policies right away.

1. A Frontline Futures Fund to Invest in Workers Who Are Critical to the COVID Response

Throughout our nation’s history, we have enacted federal policies that celebrate and support people who sacrifice their lives to fight on the front lines. For example, since 1944, the GI Bill has helped eligible veterans and their family members cover the cost of education and training. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the front lines look different. Essential workers in health care, emergency response, food and agriculture, and manufacturing, among other critical sectors, are putting themselves at risk every day to keep the American people safe and ensure that they have the goods and services they need. We owe them a debt of gratitude and an investment in their future. To better support our frontline and essential workers, we need federal funding that helps them get the skills they need to advance and succeed while also giving others an incentive to enter these fields that are so critical to our way of life.

Recommended Federal Action:

Congress should consider creating a Frontline Futures Fund to provide a GI Bill-style guarantee of up to two years of debt-free public college education to low-wage workers serving on the front lines of sectors deemed to be part of the nation’s critical infrastructure during the pandemic. In order to help these essential workers advance in their careers and get on a path to upward economic mobility, this program should cover the cost of attaining a short-term certificate or two-year degree tied to industry need, or progressing toward a relevant bachelor’s degree. Additionally, this program should provide financial support beyond tuition, offering a cost-of-living allowance or automatically enrolling eligible participants in public benefits like SNAP. Programs like this are starting to pop up across the country. In Michigan, for example, Governor Gretchen Witmer has proposed a program called Futures for Frontliners. Policymakers should take care in crafting a new “free college” benefit to ensure that it focuses on equity and economic impact. The Policy Leadership Trust offers these principles to guide policy design.

2. A Rapid Retraining Fund to Help Unemployed and Vulnerable Workers Successfully Transition to 21st-Century Careers and Skills

Since the beginning of March, more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. This historic spike in unemployment has hit people of color and low-income families disproportionately hard. While some workers have been able to return to work, many likely won’t. Some estimates suggest that as many as 40 percent of the jobs lost during the pandemic will never come back, in large part because the pandemic may prove to be an “automation-forcing event” that makes large numbers of workers irrelevant or redundant. People need training—and fast—to develop skills for a new job or to remain employed at a time when jobs will be scarce—and as the shelf life of skills shrinks.

Recommended Federal Action:

Congress should consider creating a multi-billion-dollar rapid retraining program delivered through our nation’s public community and technical colleges. Recently-announced grant programs, such as the Reimagining Workforce Preparation grants and the Strengthening Community Colleges Training grants, are good first steps but are not enough to address the scope and scale of our nation’s reskilling and upskilling challenge. We envision a retraining fund that community colleges could use to partner with business and industry to co-design and co-deliver demand-driven certificate and degree programs, virtually or in-person. Such programs would be made available at no cost to dislocated workers and low-income and entry-level workers who are particularly vulnerable to being left behind in a changing economy. The grant program should also fund career navigation and reemployment services and provide regulatory relief to encourage innovative design and delivery approaches. This program could be modeled after the TAACCCTT program, which was created in response to the Great Recession and saw positive outcomes. Policymakers can also use the Policy Trust’s Career Connections policy principles as a guide to innovative approaches.

3. A Family Supportive, Learning-First Promise to Provide Much-Needed Support for Student Parents

At least one in five of today’s college students is parenting a child while enrolled in classes. In a survey of more than 23,000 parenting students conducted before the pandemic, respondents reported substantial economic insecurities and said their prospects for degree attainment were low. Heading into this fall, many of these students face seemingly insurmountable odds because they have to balance their educational pursuits and work obligations with increased child care and homeschooling responsibilities. The easy way out would be to stop taking classes, but doing that could have dire effects on their families’ economic prospects. As a nation, we need to do whatever we can to help these students stay on track to credential attainment, so they are able to advance in the changing economy and blaze a trail to upward economic mobility for their children. New initiatives like the Rise Prize, created by Imaginable Futures, are investing in solutions that drive economic mobility for student parents and improve their well-being. It’s time for Congress to take action, too. Federal policymakers should support parenting students and their families by enacting policy and funding measures that keep skill development opportunities within reach of every household.

Recommended Federal Action:

In the next federal stimulus package, Congress should consider expanding benefits and making program requirements more flexible to relieve the financial pressures on student parents and encourage them to stay in school. Such benefits should include food assistance and financial support to address child care and homeschooling responsibilities and defray the cost of remote learning technologies. This benefit could be modeled on Medicaid’s Self-Directed Services program, which lets qualified people manage their own health services, and allows them to hire and pay family members to deliver those services.

4. A National Broadband Plan to Ensure That All Americans Have Reliable Internet Access for Remote Learning and Work

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated the digital divide in education and employment, and it is clear that the need to work and attend class remotely is not going away anytime soon. As the pandemic persists, K-12 and postsecondary institutions are announcing plans to continue hybrid or all-remote operations, and many major employers (like Google) are doing the same. In this environment, federal policymakers must devise a national plan to ensure that every student, teacher, and worker has reliable broadband service and the technological devices necessary to access remote learning and work platforms.

Recommended Federal Action:

Federal policymakers should take immediate steps to create a means-tested benefit through which eligible individuals and families can receive financial assistance to cover the cost of internet access and technology. For postsecondary students, this benefit could flow through existing federal aid programs, like the Pell Grant. Longer-term measures could include federal investments in broadband infrastructure projects. These projects would not only expand internet access but also serve as employment and training opportunities for workers from historically underrepresented and marginalized populations.

5. Greater Investment in Community Colleges That Is Befitting of Their Impact on Individuals, Communities, and Regional Economies

To reiterate the Policy Leadership Trust position that we discussed in an earlier blog, we believe that community colleges are key to the country’s COVID-19 recovery and are well positioned to serve as engines of economic opportunity for struggling workers, families, and communities. But with ongoing decreases in their state funding, and without access to the large endowments that other institutions of higher education have, community colleges may be forced to make deep cuts to programs and services at a time when students and local communities need support more than ever. As resources decline, community colleges will have less capital to invest in new technologies, curbing their ability to support remote learning and meet the skill needs of emerging industries. Moreover, cuts raise the prospect of widespread layoffs of campus staff, which could have ripple effects in local economies, especially those in which colleges serve as anchor employers. Although the CARES Act provided stopgap relief, that money is running out, and the formula used for disbursement of those funds was biased against community colleges.

Recommended Federal Action:

In the next stimulus package, Congress should consider creating a federal-state matching fund to support the critical mission of community colleges. This fund would help community college leaders develop high-quality virtual instructional models, including for skills-based courses that have historically been offered only in person, like welding, automotive maintenance, mechatronics, and nursing. This would ensure that students continue to get the hands-on, work-based learning they need. In addition, this fund would enable colleges to sustain and expand the support services that students need.

As the pandemic persists and our economy continues to change, America needs a significant federal investment to strengthen our workforce. To do this, Congress must pass another stimulus package with three primary goals: to support frontline workers; help dislocated and low-wage, entry level workers, as well as students, retool and develop in-demand skills that prepare them for the future; and ensure that our education and workforce development systems have the resources they need to provide these essential services to individuals in need.

This cannot wait another day. Congress must take action on these five policies right away to help our nation survive these pandemic-driven crises and get on the path to an equitable economic recovery.

For more from the Policy Leadership Trust, see our second blog in the Practitioner Insights for Recovery Series.