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Five Actions That States Should Take to Help People Rebound, Spur Job Growth, and Transform Education and Workforce Development Systems

February 14, 2022

At a Glance

An equitable economic recovery requires bold policy change, and soon.

Libuse Binder, Policy Innovation Fellow
Practices & Centers

With fall elections on the horizon, this legislative season occurs at an important inflection point for governors and legislators to put their states on a path to economic recovery and renewal. The decisions ahead will impact state economies for years to come. Leaders must make strategic choices on the use of federal COVID-19 relief funding, allocating the American Rescue Plan’s Fiscal Recovery Funds, and implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—all while keeping state budgets balanced.

States can and should create the conditions for an economic recovery that benefits everyone and ensures that all workers have opportunities to contribute to a more resilient and more prosperous future. This is especially key for learners and workers who both historically and currently lack equal access and opportunity to advancement, in particular people of color, people working in low-wage jobs, and people residing in low-income communities.

Experience and evidence tell us that executing this vision will take concerted efforts on supporting people, revitalizing places, and reforming systems. Here are five concrete steps state policymakers can take to fuel their state’s equitable economic recovery:

  1. Broaden Access to High-Quality Rapid Reskilling Options
  2. Invest in Robust Career Navigation Systems
  3. Infuse Career-Connected Learning Throughout Educational Pathways
  4. Revitalize Regional Economies Inclusively
  5. Address Financial Insecurities That Hold People Back

1. Broaden Access to High-Quality Rapid Reskilling Options

Short-term credentialing programs can serve an important function in rapidly retraining unemployed and underemployed workers for better career prospects. These programs also appeal to students interested in shorter bursts of skill building throughout their educational experience. In addition, short-term credentials provide a critical first rung on the ladder to upward economic mobility.

To increase the affordability and accessibility of short-term credential programs for students and workers, state policymakers should:

  • Set and enforce quality standards to ensure short-term programs lead to credential attainment, in-demand employment, and family-sustaining earnings, assessed in terms of both wage thresholds and relative wage growth.
  • Make quality programs available and affordable by investing additional resources in existing initiatives, expanding eligibility of traditional financial aid programs, or establishing innovative new financial aid models.
  • Incentivize stackable credentials to ensure that individuals are not stalled in entry-level jobs but can clearly see pathways to higher-level credentials and careers. To promote truly stackable credentials, policies must be in place to ensure credit articulation and credit for prior learning, regardless of program type.

Read JFF’s policy recommendations for short-term postsecondary programs.

2. Invest in Robust Career Navigation Systems

Americans hold an average of 12 jobs during their working lives, and nearly one in four change their job or career every 12 months. The COVID-driven downturn, coupled with “The Great Resignation,” has accelerated this pace of near-constant change.

Most resignations have taken place in low-wage sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, yet most career navigation services and resources are geared toward corporate workers and large employers, leaving the vast majority of learners and workers with underfunded and fragmented forms of support. To provide jobseekers with unbiased ways to assess and represent their skills, while also accessing timely and accurate information about in-demand skills and career options, state policymakers should:

  • Appropriately measure—and make transparent—outcomes of education and workforce development programs, through aligned and enhanced data systems.
  • Invest in a statewide career navigation technology platform that draws on traditional and real-time labor market information, as well employer insights around in-demand skills.
  • Deploy tech-enabled career navigation tools to middle and high schools, colleges, American Job Centers, and community organizations. Train career counselors, teachers, and mentors on the use of navigation tools in culturally competent ways to better serve students and jobseekers who are likely to need more personalized support as they explore career options.

Read JFF’s state policy recommendations for universal career navigational services.

3. Infuse Career-Connected Learning Throughout Educational Pathways

Our public education system too often separates college and career, focusing on preparing young adults for one at the expense of the other. In our evolving economy, it is becoming increasingly important to provide all young people a pathway to attaining high-value postsecondary credentials and job-related skills so they can advance in the economy. Today’s youth want career relevance infused into their educational experiences, personalized college and career guidance to explore their career options, and planning support to avoid costly missteps. To answer the call, state policymakers should:

  • Establish a unified state definition, standards, and attainment goals for career readiness and of accountability for K-12 education. The goals should have clear targets for closing equity gaps in college access, persistence, and attainment and entry into high-wage, in-demand career fields.
  • Expand dual enrollment and embed it in all state-supported career and technical education programs of study. All high school students, including those who are enrolled in CTE programs, should have access to dual enrollment courses that bolster college and career pathways. States should also eliminate financial barriers for students, including books, course fees, test fees, and travel costs.
  • Set the expectation that high-quality work-based learning experiences (such as internships, co-ops, and apprenticeships) are integrated throughout secondary and postsecondary curricula and into rigorous job training programs.

For more details, read JFF’s policy recommendations for career and technical pathways and for integrating learning and work. For an even bolder take on transformational reforms, see JFF’s vision for The Big Blur.

4. Revitalize Regional Economies Inclusively

Equitable economic growth requires inclusion at every step of the way, from how we design our education and training systems to how we use coordinated investments for regional economic development. This will mean reforming existing laws and designing new proposals and initiatives that allow for state and local ability to guide policy and practice to meet the unique needs of their communities. State policymakers should:

  • Support community engagement and empowerment in regional economic development strategies by requiring a diverse representation of the community on economic development boards and projects.
  • Require that all large-scale infrastructure projects carry a community benefit agreement that includes provisions for local hiring, funding for job training, and supports for job placement.
  • Recognize and invest in high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs that provide pathways to good jobs for populations that face longstanding and structural barriers to entry into the workforce, including people of color, women of all backgrounds, justice-involved individuals, out-of-school youth, and people with disabilities.
  • Provide incentives to employers, education systems, and workforce development systems to ensure inclusive outreach, recruiting, support, and hiring practices are happening on the ground.

For more details, read JFF’s vision for inclusive regional economic development, as well as recommendations on inclusive policy approaches, equitable job-generating investments, and high-quality pre-apprenticeship programs.

5. Address Financial Insecurities that Hold People Back

Individuals and families experiencing poverty or financial distress need stronger financial and social supports to have a better chance at advancing in today’s economy. Those supports should seamlessly integrate education, workforce development, and human and social services to meet people where they are and where they want to go. States should:

  • Initiate combined state planning across health and human services, workforce, and education agencies to coordinate delivery of services. That will enable programs to holistically serve individuals and families, and it will allow officials to identify ways to braid and blend resources to make federal funding go further.
  • Prioritize state use of federal social program funding through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training program, and others for eligible workforce development activities. These activities, which can include education, training, case management, career navigation, support services, and wage subsidies, can encourage participation in education and skills development programs that can help eligible individuals advance in college and their careers.
  • Strengthen the financial stability of people participating in education and workforce development programs by ensuring that they have sufficient and equitable access to public assistance programs, such as child care, transportation, housing, food assistance, and health care.
  • Ease transitions to work and self-sufficiency. States should review the way they manage federal poverty alleviation programs such as TANF, Child Care Development Block Grants, SNAP, Medicaid, and the Housing Choice Voucher program to avoid benefit cliffs that create hardships for workers in low-wage jobs. States should carefully design gradual benefit reductions, as the Internal Revenue Service does with the Earned Income Tax Credit. States should also make incremental shifts in eligibility more transparent to ensure that public assistance recipients who make progress in employment can have positive transitions to work and self-sufficiency and fully understand the way changes in their employment status and income will affect their eligibility for benefits.

For more details, read JFF’s state policy recommendations for strong financial and social supports.

It’s Time for Bold Action

With so much at stake in what will be a critical election year, states must invest in their learners and workers to generate new jobs and revitalize our nation’s most distressed communities. This requires a more efficient, effective, and equitable pipeline for developing talent that cannot be achieved through existing systems or new models without major reform. Policies, practices, and funding streams too often have their roots in an America and an economy that existed a half-century ago. Only through bold, transformative action can state policymakers succeed in driving sustainable economic growth for all.

JFF is here to help state policymakers put these policy ideas into action. We invite you to contact us at to learn more.

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