The majority of American workers (66 percent) lack a four-year college degree. Unfortunately, the pace of wage growth for these workers significantly lags that of their college degree–holding counterparts, according to Peter Blair, assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. More recently, those without a degree have been hit hardest by job losses from the pandemic, and some say 40–45 percent of jobs lost during the pandemic will not be coming back. Why has the US struggled to maintain economic mobility for those without a degree, and what policy and institutional changes must be made to give all workers a better path toward economic success as we build back after the pandemic?
Blair and other experts offered views on creating a more economic mobility within all sectors of the labor market as part of the third panel in a week-long series of conversations launching WorkRise. During the panel, experts agreed education and skills training are key to improving economic mobility for workers, although some see the need for institutional or structural changes, including changes to the ways employers treat workers.
Structurally, the United States needs to improve the quality of the jobs available to all workers with better wages, stability, and benefits and to restore the connection between education and economic mobility, according to Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Labor at New America. McCarthy described three critical focus areas:
- strengthening labor laws so workers have more power to demand a greater return for their skills
- examining and reimagining how we finance and hold accountable our secondary education and training providers to eliminate the disastrous reliance on debt financing
- strengthening the institutions, such as labor unions, that help mediate between jobs, workers, and employers
McCarthy sees the fundamental problem as one of job quality, not skill shortage: the jobs available to people without a bachelor’s degree are often low quality because they lack benefits, stability, and decent wages.
Blair would like to see more programs that promote on-the-job education and skill acquisition to close the wage gap. David Zammiello, executive director of Project QUEST sees the issue of matching jobs with worker skills as a “pipeline” discussion. Our training programs and systems need to do a better job providing workers with both the technical skills and the soft skills—like resilience and flexibility—needed for the current work environment, Zammiello said.
Kristen Titus, executive director of the Cognizant U.S. Foundation echoed the sentiment that describing the problem as a skills gap sounds like a worker problem when, in reality, the lack of clear pathways to upward mobility within the labor market are the problem. We need employers, policymakers, and educational institutions to clearly identify the path to and entry points for high-quality jobs.
According to McCarthy, our focus on one type of workforce development—four-year degrees delivered by a college education—leaves other parts of our system underbuilt. For example, our national apprenticeship system should be updated and better leveraged, particularly at the state and city levels.
In terms of on-the-job training, Zammiello would like to see more boot camp–type training programs for adult workers who want to pivot and acquire new skills. Businesses move quickly, and intense, short training programs and other nontraditional efforts can be much more responsive to changing business needs than traditional secondary education.
Titus agreed that in our current economy, with many jobs potentially disappearing, and others—though not as many—quickly evolving to replace them, static education systems and slow pipelines aren’t preparing workers for changes even employers can’t anticipate. We need a system that lets workers evolve on the job.
Blair noted the need to move beyond a college degree as the only way to identify and quantify a “skilled worker.” He would also like to see our system mature into one where employers don’t just use workers but, instead, see their role as part of a larger ecosystem, which obligates them to build employee skills, empowering workers to move into new jobs.
Next steps in recovering from the pandemic and bringing greater equity to the workforce
Moderator Gayatri Agnew, senior director at the Walmart Foundation, highlighted the urgency of addressing the inequities in the labor market, given the high number of jobs that may be permanently lost to the pandemic, and she probed the panelists for their thoughts on how to bring greater racial equity to our workplaces.
Reiterating that we only have one opportunity to correct the system coming out of this recovery, Titus noted that we need to meet workers where they are right now. For example, someone who has been out of a job for six months won’t be well served by a four-month, unpaid boot camp.
Zammiello noted the role of the digital divide in exacerbating inequities: lower-income workers often don’t have basic access to computers and the internet to gain new skills. Creating equitable access to technology is a key starting point to recovery.
Corporate attention to racial justice issues creates an opportunity for the entire country to change the way we think about how the US labor market works, who it really works for, and how we should restructure it to work for more Americans, according to Blair. In particular, we need to rethink how we assess worker skills—extra college requirements or credentials for jobs increases inequality. To truly address racial justice, corporate America needs to hire differently, Blair said.
Better articulating how increased economic mobility benefits everyone
Lessons have been learned through past failures. Zammiello noted the need to better articulate the value proposition to the entire community of workforce development. McCarthy pointed out that the failure to adequately communicate how worker power and organization will benefit the whole economy has limited the strength of these movements.
Individual skills training will not solve historic levels of inequality, according to McCarthy. We are too used to thinking in individualistic and market terms, and we are holding ourselves back by our failure to support worker organizations and power. We need more collective approaches to economic development and growth.