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How Reskilling Programs Can Reshape the U.S. Workforce

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6/16/2021 Kaia Hubbard
a group of people looking at a laptop: A young adult woman sitting with the diverse group, focuses on the lecture in college. © Getty Images A young adult woman sitting with the diverse group, focuses on the lecture in college.

Marcelo Ruas of Fall River, Massachusetts, was working as a carpenter when he decided it was time for a career change. On top of 9- to-10-hour days, he often had long commutes to jobs and was physically wearing down.

"In construction your body takes a hit, and my back was hurting all the time," Ruas told U.S. News in an interview. "I knew I needed to do something different." He had played around with computer programming as a kid, and it gave him confidence to take a leap of faith. He enrolled in an associate degree program at nearby Bristol Community College, continuing to work as a carpenter to help pay for his classes.

"A lot of people asked me how I could take classes after working long hours," Ruas said. "I told them that if I didn't I would still be doing the job that wasn't making me happy." After completing his degree in two and a half years, Ruas secured a computer programming job at Bristol.

Ruas' story represents the ideal when it comes to reskilling: an American worker who successfully launched himself onto a new career path by acquiring new skills. But his story is not necessarily the norm, especially after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted and devastated the labor market, according to a panel of workforce experts who participated in a U.S. News webinar last week. Yet, as the U.S. economy recovers, reskilling will likely become more and more important for both employers and job seekers, the panelists said.

"Currently we have about 10 million Americans who have been permanently displaced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in addition to these individuals we have many more, especially women ... who have dropped out of the labor force all together," said Irma Perez-Johnson, vice president at American Institutes of Research, during the webinar.

What's more, she noted, "we have many who have lost loved ones, been on the front lines and … are seriously rethinking their paths in this economy. All of these individuals will need support and guidance to navigate effectively what is fundamentally a disrupted labor market and economy."

In fact, as some industries change or even die out, workers are facing an increasingly volatile job market, which for many will mean they must find a new career path. Reskilling initiatives can help, but too many of these programs have failed to deliver, the panelists generally agreed,

"I keep referring to this moment as being sort of 'the great reshuffling' in terms of workers just being in a different position and re-evaluating and trying to figure out how to move forward," said Amanda Cage, president and CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. Collectively, the country needs to meet this challenge, Cage said, and "this is a moment in time when we can reorganize and get this right."

Unlike many other countries, the U.S. does not have a national agenda when it comes to reskilling and workforce investments at large, Cage noted, citing the country's low workforce investment as compared to other industrialized nations. "That's a real issue," she said.

Jennie Sparandara, head of global workforce initiatives and corporate responsibility at JPMorgan Chase, noted that for stakeholders to address such a complex workforce challenge, "we can't have programmatic solutions to such a big problem," she said. "We need systemic solutions. And so, to me, this is less about 'We funded a really interesting program' and more 'We help everybody raise their game.'"

Amanda Winters, program director of post-secondary education at the National Governors Association, noted that difficulties exist at the state level because "there are no best practices to deal with what just happened."

"I think one of the reasons that some of this has been so difficult to tackle is that no one entity owns this," Winters said. "This is something that is a shared responsibility across public and private sectors, and also across a lot of different federal agencies that feed into programs at the state level, and so there's a lot of attempts to throw everything out there to see what will work."

That said, "the connection of that with the worker at the center is a huge challenge because of this diffuse nature of the solutions, of the initiatives," she added. "That's something that states are trying to get their arms around right now."

Sparandara noted that "states need to evolve their career and technical education systems" to make clear the kinds of work available and the pathways and skills needed to access them – and to help young people, in particular. The challenge, she said, is to figure out how to "enable more flexibility, more creativity," and to evolve how philanthropy supports such efforts. "Let us be an engine to try new things, a bit of R&D support for leaders who are willing to think differently about how these systems come together."

Winters noted that some states have prioritized creating website portals with information on jobs and pathways, but "just putting out information about pathways is not sufficient to getting folks what they need to make those types of life decisions," she said. Instead, Winters advocated for more robust regional and local approaches to reskilling.

For example, she highlighted a recent collaboration between the NGA, the National League of Cities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities that explored the role of regional "anchor institutions" such as universities and how they can work with state and local partners to leverage economic opportunities and career pathways. Among the efforts at the state level, equity is "high on the minds of governors across the aisle," Winters said.

Indeed, the equity conversation is a vital one, Cage agreed. "As we're thinking about upscaling and training, we really have to focus on the racial equity aspects of it as we build programs and as we sustain programs," she said.

That equity work begins at the entry-level jobs and must continue all the way through to the C-suite, the panelists noted.

"We've had this story in this country that it's OK if we have a low-quality job as long as we build a career ladder for you to get out of it," Cage said. "We have to get beyond that. Even entry-level jobs need to be good jobs because that's what empowers people. ... If we let them make ends meet from the beginning, we could capitalize on that talent earlier."

Paige Shevlin, director of policy and national initiatives at the nonprofit Markle Foundation, reiterated Cage's point, explaining that policymakers "have to address the floor in order to actually address equity."

"There are not enough gateway jobs for everybody to access them," Shevlin said. "There's simply not enough good jobs, and so we have to raise the floor of current jobs."

Although conversations about the nation's workforce and reskilling initiatives often look toward the future, plenty of opportunities exist in the present moment, maintained Sparandara.

"The future of work feels like the wrong lens because it is the 'now' of work," she said. "This is a moment where we can be more creative than we've ever been before about what job design looks like: what, who and how we build pathways into those roles."

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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