We Can’t Train Our Way out of This Crisis

The focus on training and placement during the Great Recession left our economy vulnerable and we’re paying the price today

The coronavirus pandemic is teaching our nation a very painful lesson: An economy built on far too many low-wage, low-quality jobs is simply unsustainable. The anxiety we are feeling today has been felt by many workers every single day, for decades, especially people of color and women. But now we are seeing just how vulnerable we all are.

When businesses say a given position isn’t worth more than $15 an hour, what it sounds like they are saying is that the people who work in those positions aren’t worth more. This includes those in service and supply chain industries, frontline healthcare workers, and more. These are the very same workers now deemed “essential” in the era of coronavirus.

So, what happens when the immediate health crisis is over and we begin to think about what’s next?

The 2008 recession and recovery offer lessons as we grapple with how to heal our nation post-coronavirus. Back then, the workforce development field moved heaven and earth to reskill laid-off workers and get them back to work. Fueled by about $12 billion in public and private investments, they accomplished this by focusing on in-demand occupations and addressing employer needs.

That approach worked. Millions of people got back to work and the unemployment rate dropped to record levels. In fact, by all the usual measures, the economy boomed.

But there was a big issue hiding in plain sight. Most of the jobs available then (and now) were not great jobs. In fact, almost three out of every four jobs pay far too little for a family of four to afford the basics and offer few, if any, benefits. But the urgency to get people into jobs — any job — exacerbated income and wealth inequality, especially along racial lines. We focused mostly on reskilling the supply side of the labor market and not on improving the quality of the jobs and therefore contributed to the unsustainable economy that has left us all vulnerable today.

We cannot make the same mistake this time around. We simply can’t train our way out of this crisis.

If our idea of “getting back to normal” means a return to pre-COVID19 days, we will have failed. The pre-COVID19 economy looked good on paper, but it wasn’t working for most people.

If we didn’t think much about job quality back in 2008, that last four to five years paint a different picture. Workforce development practitioners have been working hard, in partnership with employers to improve the quality of jobs for frontline workers. But we can’t lose ground. In fact, we need to accelerate and expand that work to ensure that people earn good wages, have good benefits, including paid sick leave, and have access to opportunities to build their skills and advance.

Businesses that have improved their jobs have not just helped their workers, they’ve built resiliency and an advantage over their competitors. Of course, we will need to train workers for new or substantially changed jobs, but we must make sure those jobs don’t just prop up the economy — they boost it.

Economy-boosting jobs allow workers to pay their bills, buy from local businesses, and save for the future. When every family thrives, the community thrives, and we all become less vulnerable to major shocks such as a pandemic.

So how do we leverage this crisis, and the awakening that has resulted, to redesign a more inclusive and sustainable economy with lots of economy-boosting jobs?

One thing we could do is set minimum job quality standards for employers. Paid sick leave and healthcare coverage would be a fine place to start, given what we are currently living through. While we’re at it, let’s add flexible scheduling practices and a commitment to equity.

Then, as we restart the economy, only employers who meet or exceed those standards would have access to newly reskilled workers. That would demonstrate we truly learned the painful economic lesson this virus has taught us.

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Janice Urbanik

-- Senior Director for Innovation and Strategy, National Fund for Workforce Solutions