Labor Day – America's annual tribute to the workforce – provides an opportune moment to take stock of our nation’s workforce development strategy. Having spent over 50 combined years working in the complex fields of education and workforce development, we contend that major – yet feasible – changes at the federal level are essential to effectively align education, workforce, and economic development to lead American citizens into a hopeful, prosperous future.
President Biden’s ambitious Bidenomics plan seeks to transform how the country addresses its workforce needs. Key components of the plan include three laws: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. Despite significant communication efforts, including online and on-the-ground promotion by the President and top Cabinet members, a startling 59% of Americans are unaware of Bidenomics, and nearly two-thirds of respondents disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy. This confusion and disapproval exists at a time of political bifurcation and higher (though declining) inflation, and in the larger historical context of declining public trust in the American government. To fully realize the potential of his plan, President Biden and his advisory team must broaden their message and shift their strategy.
Why do so many Americans disapprove of President Biden’s approach to the economy? We believe one reason is that the key federal agencies (e.g. the departments of education, labor, defense, commerce, etc.) charged with equipping Americans for future jobs are not in sync. As dollars flow from the uncoordinated federal level, fragmentation persists at the local level where schools, training organizations, employers, and economic development agencies that rely on federal funds remain siloed. The result is that as our economy undergoes seismic shifts and disruption, local systems are ill-equipped to retrain, revitalize, and retool our workforce. What this means on the ground is that individual workers don’t understand the newly available jobs, educators aren’t prepared to upskill the local workforce, career advisors are unprepared to advise workers about the jobs, and economic developers operate separately from all of these actors. The unintended consequence is that many Americans feel lost and frustrated, and struggle to adapt to the rapid changes in employment opportunities.
So, what should happen next? The steps we outline below will help rebuild a sense of trust in government systems while demonstrating local impact in order to change public perception of government programs.
First, President Biden must acknowledge the public confusion and frustration that stems from the misaligned federal agencies. Anxiety and tension overshadow the great potential of the Bidenomics plan and add to uncertainty and distrust in his approach. President Biden must concede that the Bidenomics plan is situated against a backdrop of many failures over many years – often resulting from this inter-agency dysfunction.
Second, President Biden and his team must commit to aligning the federal agencies associated with workforce development to ensure seamless communication and coordination. With substantial resources already dedicated to education, workforce, and economic development agencies, the goal should be to integrate and streamline the work and resources across agencies to ensure coordination and synchronization.
Though the idea of a President elevating bureaucratic issues during a presidential campaign may sound like a pipedream, President Biden doesn't need to look far for solutions. His Economic Policy Council recently authored a National Strategy for Advanced Manufacturing report outlining a cohesive strategy for building the advanced manufacturing workforce. In particular, they recommend fostering synergistic efforts between education and industry that build transparency and currency around skills, credentials, and work-based learning opportunities. They specifically call out the importance of using public-private partnerships to strengthen regional manufacturing networks and the critical role that federal agencies have in creating and funding those partnership efforts. While the report itself is industry-specific, the authors’ recommendations provide a replicable blueprint for other industries to follow to streamline and maximize their efforts.
One of President Biden's Cabinet members also stands out as a leader in the education and workforce development arena. In her former capacity as Governor of Rhode Island, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo successfully built statewide initiatives that marshaled local organizations to create regional workforce training to revitalize and develop key sectors including advanced manufacturing, defense, and IT. One example is the Real Jobs Rhode Island workforce development program, which supports innovative training models through cross-sector collaboration among employers, educators, and training providers. Since 2015, this program has trained close to 30,000 individuals and placed more than 13,000 into jobs. Full disclosure: Julian had the honor of working with Secretary Raimondo on these initiatives in his role as Vice President of Workforce Partnerships at the Community College of Rhode Island. These regional efforts serve as essential proof points to the public that there are workforce opportunities for all in a state that, like many, has seen major economic changes in recent years.
Having just celebrated Labor Day, now is the time for President Biden and his team to better align government agencies to pave the way toward improved economic opportunity for all. Let’s usher in reforms that lead to rapid benefits felt by the workers of today and safeguard the workers of tomorrow.