Training for a Changing Workforce

Teaching workers digital skills will be key to retraining.

Teaching workers digital skills will be key to retraining. goodluz/Shutterstock


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Future job growth isn’t just about the number of jobs, but the quality—those that have benefits and provide advancement opportunities. How do we train workers for those types of jobs?

One study estimated that increased productivity, particularly from the rise of automation, was responsible for almost 88% of the job losses in manufacturing from 2000 to 2010. Another 40 million people, in all kinds of sectors, could be out of work in the U.S. by 2030 because of these kind of trends. Many of those employees will want to remain in the workforce, but will need significant re-education if they hope to apply for high-quality jobs with health insurance, paid leave, and retirement benefits.

This means that the U.S. will need to prepare for an influx of mid-career employees who need to retrain for other jobs. It also means the next generation will have to accept a paradigm shift, one in which the first job they hold may not exist by the time they retire, making continuing education a requisite part of continuing to work in a shifting labor market.

“If learning becomes a continuous part of the culture, it’s not such a shock to the system when you have to go back to school, and adapt to change your career course,” said Demetra Nightingale, a fellow at the Urban Institute, at a Thursday event sponsored by the Urban Institute and the Aspen Institute about how job programs could provide people with the education necessary to pursue stable careers.

Like many others have before her, Nightingale suggested that the federal, state, and local governments invest in apprenticeship and worker retraining programs now, in anticipation of major workforce disruptions down the line. “The workers themselves, as well as government and businesses, have a role to play in this. That role is to prepare not only for the jobs that exist today, but also the ones that will exist in the future, so they can have an optimistic career outlook,” said Nightingale.

But preparing for future jobs isn’t easy. It requires continuous education, which may not be available to everyone. “We may think that education is accessible, but it’s not,” said Caryn York, the executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force. “We often highlight community college as a way to get ahead, but if you don’t have $300 for a class, that opportunity really isn’t available to you.”

York also pointed out that low-wage workers are the least likely to have access to high quality jobs because of the barriers they face in obtaining education. In her neighborhood of southwest Baltimore, the median income is $10,500, and only 40% of her neighbors have GEDs. “It’s real out here,” she said. “There are certain constituencies who are just not being reached by adult education and skills training initiatives.”

Many low-wage jobs are in the industries with the greatest projected decline over the next ten years, including telecommunications, foundries, paper mills, and apparel, textiles, and plastics manufacturing.

Federal attention has arrived at the issue, and programs that make the workforce more nimble have seen bipartisan support. In her 2020 campaign, Elizabeth Warren has pledged to massively increase federal spending worker retraining and apprenticeship programs, calling such a move “aggressive intervention on behalf of American workers.” Her actions echo those of President Trump, who signed an executive order in 2017 that expanded ApprenticeshipUSA, a program that was previously supported by President Obama.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal similarly calls for expanded worker retraining programs, as it would seek to shift those in fossil fuel industries to the renewable energy sector.

But York said that initiatives at the federal level haven’t engaged the right people yet. “Policy makers are listening more to businesses than they are to workers,” she said. “We need more worker stories in these conversations.”

The lack of worker engagement may not be limited to government. Nightingale noted that there has also been a shift in the relationship between employers and employees, leading to a decline in dignity and opportunities at work. “There are more gig workers and more people contracting out. There are fewer people who have health and retirement insurance through their work,” she said. “Creating good jobs also means opportunities to advance and the chance for life-long learning to adapt to changes in the labor market.”

Tech companies seem to have taken the lead on this issue, through their efforts to retrain the workers they’re displacing. Google now offers an intro IT course on the learning site Coursera, while Amazon provides workers in its warehouses funding for job training elsewhere. AT&T is spending $1 billion on retraining its own workers to be competitive in the future, and Microsoft has pledged money to a nonprofit that provides people the skills to work in healthcare and IT.

But research on worker retraining programs has shown mixed results. One study found that job training increased workers’ chances of finding work, but didn’t have an impact on their earnings. Others have found that many workers simply don’t show up to retraining programs—because they don’t want the jobs left in their area or they’re unwilling to miss out on earnings from lower-paying jobs that they take after losing their old ones.

Given the somewhat limited success of retraining, some states are focusing instead on apprenticeship. In 2013, the Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK) debuted, allowing high school students to gain credit for skills-based classes that serve as a direct pipeline to apprenticeships in high-demand industries. The program has so far shown steady success, particularly in its partnership with businesses that provide coding curriculum, with an average participant’s projected salary increasing from $17,000 to $40,000 per year after a few months of training.

York said that while more movement is needed at the federal level around job retraining and apprenticeship, “a lot of the action right now is happening at the state and local level” in programs like Kentucky’s. That’s where people are focusing on the needs of communities, she said. “But we still have to think more creatively and intentionally about how to make educational opportunities more available to people with all sorts of different challenges.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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