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A public policy blog from AEI
One of the most important and challenging questions related to preparing people for the workforce is, “Who’s actually responsible?”
When it comes to K-12 education, for more than 150 years, there’s been widespread agreement that the public (i.e. the government in some form) has a large obligation. We have a collective interest in seeing to it that all kids learn basic skills, essential content, citizenship, and so forth. This consensus (about the government’s interest) doesn’t end the discussion—there are still important questions about the authority of families, about which level of government should predominate, and, most interestingly, about which organizations should operate schools. But the agreement on a substantial state role enables the conversation to get started and make progress.
But when it comes to who’s on the hook for ensuring people are ready to work, there’s far less clarity. Is it the individual, the family, the high school, the community college, the four-year college, the state government, the employer, civil society, labor unions? Does each have a different type of responsibility? For example, different entities could take responsibility for seeking out, financing, researching, innovating, overseeing, and providing training programs.
I think some amount of our workforce problem—lots of people out of the labor force but lots of jobs unfilled—can be attributed to the lack of agreement about responsibility. Consider just a few examples.
During a recent AEI event, Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of House Education and the Workforce Committee, explained her strong support for career and technical training, and she made clear her view that Uncle Sam should mostly stay out. Subsequently, that committee passed a bill to reauthorize the Perkins Act along these limited-federal-government lines. The Trump administration then released a budget that would diminish federal funding in this area. So there seems to be some consensus that, to the extent there is a government role, it should be left to the states.
But then the National Governors Association weighed in on the president’s budget and requested that workforce-training funding be re-prioritized. Then this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Trump administration actually wanted to encourage more apprenticeships in higher education—through both administrative action and requests to Congress.
One possible reform is to enable a wider array of education providers to access federal funds and federal student aid—an avenue that seemed to get a vote of confidence from an administration official. But that means continued (or more) federal aid, and, since there are concerns that new providers might be less reliable than traditional higher-education institutions, considerable federal oversight. This might not be consistent with a smaller footprint for Uncle Sam in this area.
Nevertheless, a number of advocacy groups support changes to federal funding streams so Uncle Sam could do more. For example, Jobs for the Future, in its transition brief for the then-new Trump administration, recommended reforms to the Pell Grant program and a number of policies more attuned to the needs of non-traditional post-secondary students (e.g. veterans, those supporting families, those already working, those exiting prison). One important issue here is the extent to which federal funding streams support the development of a marketplace of varied providers. That is, if Uncle Sam is primarily a revenue source for workforce training, are his programs attempting to drive systemic change or are they agnostic?
Now consider the private sector. As I wrote about recently, there’s a case to be made that employers could be doing more to provide training to prospective employees. But a new report from the Business Roundtable on the nation’s ongoing skills gap argues the nation’s CEOs are helping solve the problem. It says the private sector is already spending $164 billion annually on education and training but that “nothing less than a national effort involving all levels of government, the private sector, educational institutions, and training providers.”
The report argues that too many potential workers lack basic reading and math ability (implicating our K-12 system) and more specialized skills, which it attributes to problems with labor-market signals, insufficient training programs, and job availability. Along these lines, Education Week recently highlighted Arkansas’s investment in career coaches in high schools to help students match with higher education institutions, training programs, and job opportunities. And IBM just announced plans to partner with community colleges to provide more internships and apprenticeships.
It’s hard to create an action plan when there’s no consensus on what various actors should and shouldn’t do.
A very interesting article in The Economist from earlier in the year offers a different (and considerably more statist) take. In Europe, a common view is that workforce training is a joint—meaning cooperative—responsibility of the government, employers, and organized labor. Together they assess the current and future skills needs, develop education programs, and even bake into collective bargaining agreements paid-leave for training. Singapore is taking an even more centralized approach. Employers report to the state on likely skills-need changes over the next several years, which inform the creation of “industry transformation maps.” The government then gives credits and subsidies to all adults so they can pay for a range of skills-acquisition programs.
As we continue trying to solve our jobs and skills problems, we need to appreciate this basic challenge: It’s hard to create an action plan when there’s no consensus on what various actors should and shouldn’t do.
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