By Emily Hoofnagle, Columnist
As the United States evolves into a fully high-skilled labor market, many Americans will be rendered unemployable due to their lack of marketable skills. In 2013, prior to the pandemic period, a report from Georgetown University predicted that 65% of American jobs would require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, among other troubling studies forecasting mass displacements of employees by automation. As the post-pandemic period approaches, threats of future mass unemployment are intensifying. The prediction from the jobs report was false: 70% of jobs now require some postsecondary education. Moreover, many companies confess to investing more in automation to replace workers lost since the pandemic.
The U.S. needs to increase its number of skilled workers to insulate the country from an unemployment catastrophe. To accomplish these goals, the government must invest in better job training programs and improve community college graduation rates. Fortunately, President Biden’s education plan provides a starting point to achieve both of these objectives.
Job Training Programs
Government funding for job training programs, provided to local and state governments and businesses through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), has declined 40% since 2001. One consequence has been a 28% decline in job training. Additionally, growing financial strain on the working class may make it more difficult for people to complete training programs without assistance.
The rise of the gig economy further disincentivizes job training in the private sector. This transient worker model induces employers to rely on short-term labor for specific projects instead of keeping and training a regular staff. Employers expect potential full-time employees to arrive at a job fully skilled and be prepared to increase their skill sets on their own. The dwindling number of job training opportunities makes it especially difficult for the working poor to enhance their marketability, forcing them to fight for the diminishing number of low-wage, low-skill jobs.
More government investment in job training may reverse this trend. Biden promises to enact a workforce training initiative that would invest $50 billion in apprenticeship partnerships between schools, local businesses, and local governments. This strategy would ensure that enrollees in these programs have easy access to high-quality job training and encourage them to follow a clear career path.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the best job training programs provide broad training in an industry sector. After completing sectoral training programs, participants received an average increase of 30% in hourly wages within two years. The Center for American Progress identifies sectoral training programs as the most successful in utility, training completion, and wage increase. The most optimal federal government job training assistance would follow Biden’s plan while emphasizing that these apprenticeships supply industry training.
An associate’s degree is one of the most valuable forms of job training that low-income Americans could obtain to improve their employment prospects over the long term. Unfortunately, community colleges have low graduation rates: only 26% of community college students earn a certificate or degree within six years. Such a low completion rate signals that community colleges are failed institutions. However, the failures of community colleges have less to do with the quality of these schools than the inadequate assistance dispensed for struggling students.
The first obstacle students must overcome to complete community college is time constraints. The average age of a community college student is 28, so many have to juggle jobs and familial responsibilities with school. Another issue is that many associate’s degrees often do not hold much value in the job market. Academic advising for community college students is typically poor — in one survey, only 38% of students claimed that an academic advisor assisted them. According to a Brookings Institute report, many students report feeling overwhelmed by degree choices and uninformed on which degrees are lucrative. Third, many community college students are undereducated. Once they enter college, many must take additional “catch up” courses to supplement their poor secondary education. This extra work burdens them with more time and financial constraints.
The good news is that associate’s degrees help improve social mobility. According to the Brookings Institute, one-third of upward mobility in the middle class is due to attendance at a two-year college. A separate study found that an upward mobility boost is particularly prominent among disadvantaged students. Community college degrees can be beneficial, but they have to be in a field that has ample job opportunities.
To improve community college graduation rates, the cost of completion cannot outweigh the benefits, and degree programs must align with labor market demands. Biden’s education plan also includes increased funding for Pell grants to be used to pay for the cost of attendance — not just tuition. This plan is designed to help the average community college student finish their studies while supporting themselves or their families. Partnerships similar to those mentioned above for schools and local businesses can be pipelines for community college students to have easy access to local employment once they finish their degrees. Students need to know that they will not be wasting time and money, and a clear vision of their future is fundamental to ensuring that students keep up with their studies.
Workforce development needs to be a top priority in the next several years to save the country from mass unemployment. An unemployment crisis will not resolve itself; there are no signs of employers and corporations doing more to train their workers, and community colleges lack the incentives to improve. There must be government assistance to save the unemployed from permanent joblessness.