C'mon Jeb, America Does Have a Jobs Problem

The former governor of Florida recently wrote that our workforce problems can be solved with training and education. He’s only partially right.


Photo by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

Actually, Governor Bush, we do have a jobs problem. Yes, there is a lot of room to improve our education and workforce development systems. Training and credentialing models need to be modernized and updated, especially with an eye toward equity. But that is a one-sided solution.

When 11 of the top 20 growing occupations in America are low wage, low quality jobs held disproportionately by people of color, we have a jobs problem. When 68% of the jobs in those top 20 growing occupations pay less than what a family of four needs to afford just the basics, we have a jobs problem. When the median wealth of White families in Boston is $250,000 but only $8 for Black families (no, that’s not a typo), we have a jobs problem.

Governor Bush, you call on us to recognize the simple reality that “America is a dynamic place” and workers can’t afford to spend their career using one set of skills in the same job. But dynamism in our workforce system can’t be addressed with just education and training. The reality is, we are facing sweeping technological change, huge demographic shifts, and deeply entrenched inequality. These conditions require a new social contract for workers.

It’s not all on workers to “fix” themselves. Nor is it on the workforce development system to fix the people. We need to fix the jobs, too. Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock were right:  It takes two to make a thing go right.

The (not enough) good jobs problem

We don’t have a skills gap or pathways-to-jobs problem, we have a good jobs problem. For every good job available today, there are about 50 workers who need good jobs (and because I like pop music references, check out my other blog, What the World Needs Now are Jobs, Good Jobs). This “good-jobs gap” contributes to economic insecurity for workers and decreased productivity for employers. It impacts workers of color most deeply.

Our economy has far too many low wage, low quality jobs. Jobs with a bachelor’s degree requirement automatically box out about 80% of workers of color. What is worse, having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t even guarantee a job with a good wage. In Cincinnati, 32% of Black women with a bachelor’s degree make less than $15 an hour. For White women, that statistic drops to 13%.

We can tackle this many ways, but let’s focus on three for the moment:

  1. We need to focus on improving the quality of fast-growing jobs in the care industry (child care, elder care) and the service industry (retail, restaurant, transportation, and warehousing) to help those workers become economically stable.
  2. We also need to focus on creating good quality, middle-wage jobs that provide economic and career advancement. These jobs were wiped out during the Great Recession, leading to a massive upward redistribution of wealth and a split economy.
  3. We need to recognize that we’ve all experienced trauma over the last year—a pandemic, racial violence, and a divisive election. Trauma impacts job performance in many ways, everything from attendance and focus to working well in teams and managing conflict. Employers who adopt trauma-informed practices support their workers, improve productivity, and build a more inclusive workforce culture.

Employers are a critical part of the solution

Bringing employers together to address local workforce challenges has been going on for years. Industry partnerships are a proven way to do this effectively, with outstanding outcomes, especially with government investment.

These deep relationships paid big dividends during the peak of the pandemic.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the local employer partnership in advanced manufacturing used CARES Act funding to get 68 laid-off manufacturing workers back into good jobs at more than two dozen businesses, earning more than $24 an hour on average. The workers, who represented a diverse population, gained new skills in the latest manufacturing technology, which equips them for success while also growing the talent pool for area manufacturers.

That is a just one example of how a responsive system can meet the needs of workers and employers. Because it takes two to make a thing go right.

Janice Urbanik

-- Senior Director of Strategy and Innovation