It was inspiring to hear President Joe Biden stress the importance of quality jobs in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“As my dad used to say, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck,” he said. “It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about being able to look your kid in the eye and say, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK’—and mean it.”
And at Jobs for the Future (JFF), we were especially encouraged by the president’s focus on creating new well-paid jobs in fields with opportunities for economic advancement—in addition to the 12 million jobs that have been created since he took office in January 2021.
But we’re concerned that recent federal job-creation initiatives don’t include sufficient support for the workforce development and training programs that will be needed to prepare workers to fill those jobs, especially if the goal is to build a more diverse talent pipeline by expanding opportunities for people from populations that are currently underrepresented in quality jobs.
JFF shares Biden’s commitment to expanding pathways to good jobs for people who don’t have a college degree. And we believe that the U.S. workforce and education systems, working with employers, can build those pathways, but with needed changes to how education and training are provided, and with adequate resources to do so equitably and effectively.
The president touted successful bipartisan efforts to pass bills that promise to lead to the creation of many new jobs, including the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science (CHIPS) Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. He also highlighted investments in clean energy initiatives through the Inflation Reduction Act that are also associated with prospects for significant job creation.
However, it’s unclear whether these efforts will yield inclusive economic growth and new career opportunities for all Americans. A lot depends on how these programs are implemented and whether Congress will approve new investments in skills development initiatives.
The challenge of building a workforce with the skills needed for new jobs is exacerbated by the fact the U.S. labor market is already tight. The durable goods manufacturing industry, for instance, only had 50% of the workers required to fill open jobs before these new laws were enacted—and according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that means that “even if every unemployed person with experience in the durable goods manufacturing industry were employed, the industry would fill [only] roughly a third of the vacant jobs.”
The country needs a broader skills development infrastructure to fill the new jobs and ensure that people who have not had access to high-quality career opportunities in the past will have that access in the future. And people who are learning new skills and moving into new fields need access to career navigation tools and resources so that they can identify opportunities they may not have been aware of in the past.
A Need for More Pathways to Careers
It’s clear that President Biden is aware of the need for education and training to build a skilled workforce. We were happy to hear that he’s continuing to emphasize the need to make education an affordable ticket to the middle class. We strongly support his efforts to reduce student debt, increase Pell grants, connect students to career opportunities starting in high school and provide two years of community college to all Americans.
We also welcome the fact that he acknowledged that multiple pathways are needed to good careers when he said, “Let’s offer every American a path to a good career, whether they go to college or not.”
JFF shares Biden’s commitment to expanding pathways to good jobs for people who don’t have a college degree. And we believe that the U.S. workforce system is well positioned to build those pathways, but it currently lacks the resources to do so equitably and effectively. The country needs significant increases in workforce development funding that extend beyond current federal student aid programs, including funding for high-quality short-term training programs that offer stackable credentials, expanded career navigation services, and programs offering wraparound supports that offer learners assistance with essentials like transportation, housing, and child care so those who are juggling multiple responsibilities can focus on school or training.
We look forward to working with the Biden administration, Congress, and leaders on the ground to realize the president’s ambitious vision for an economy whose strength lies in its inclusivity.
Programs that offer strong models for addressing those needs include industry sector partnerships, apprenticeships, and career pathways systems change initiatives, as well as Biden’s proposed reinvention of the Civilian Conservation Corps as the Civilian Climate Corps, and innovations funded through the Good Jobs Challenge and Strengthening Community College Training Grants.
JFF strongly supports the president’s commitment to strengthening the connections between secondary education and the workforce. Unfortunately, such efforts are often stalled by structural and systemic barriers resulting from the enduring disconnect between high school, higher education, and workforce systems. We urge the Biden administration and Congress to take immediate steps to align those systems by boosting access to early career exposure activities, work-based learning experiences, and college in high school opportunities such as dual enrollment and early colleges. Policymakers looking for a way to do that could refer to JFF’s Big Blur report, which lays out a vision for erasing the arbitrary dividing lines between high school, college, and the workforce. JFF urges federal policymakers to work to fulfill President Biden’s vision of an economy that offers all workers opportunities to pursue quality jobs and choose among multiple pathways to careers. That means fully funding the workforce development system and the higher education system, and taking concrete steps like expanding the Pell Grant to cover short-term training programs as proposed in the bipartisan Jumpstart our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act. Like the president, we believe that providing workers and learners with multiple opportunities to pursue education and training throughout their careers so they can continually build new skills is the key to U.S. competitiveness and economic prosperity.
President Biden expressed his optimism about bipartisanship in the next Congress, and JFF welcomes that dedication to reaching across the aisle. We look forward to working with the Biden administration, Congress, and leaders on the ground to realize the president’s ambitious vision for an economy whose strength lies in its inclusivity.