Before Guaranteeing Jobs, Let's Guarantee Job Retraining
The economic policy of the 2020 Democratic platform is starting to take shape. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the latest prospective nominee to announce a plan to guarantee every American a job.
That should be good news for the millions of Americans who face daily and structural forces of inequality that remove them from stable career pathways, including white working-class Americans — many of whom, according to a new study, voted for Donald Trump because of fears about cultural displacement.
Every administration since the Progressive Era has sought to create more jobs through the promise of tax breaks to businesses; subsidizing job opportunities; infrastructure, tax, and housing incentives; and leveraging resources from the private sector. But these incremental reforms have not fixed the broken talent marketplace that now exists in our country, nor have they corrected the mismatches in the labor market. While political constraints may prevent a large federal jobs guarantee program from becoming law anytime soon, it behooves both Democrats and Republicans — whether already in or aspiring to office — to create and champion local and state job-retraining initiatives that could be used as the foundation for a more comprehensive jobs program in the future.
Consider what a localized, guaranteed job-retraining program could look like. Modeled after the GI Bill, states could use a combination of private-sector funding and a portion of workforce and training money to create a Dignity of Work Fund. These competitive grants would provide funding to regions and localities to offer free training to displaced Americans at community colleges that would prepare them for local in-demand middle-skills jobs. Employers would help design curriculum and collaborate with community colleges and proven training providers like Year Up, a national job-training organization that works to catapult opportunity youth — young adults who are out of school and out of work — from minimum wage jobs to meaningful careers in a single year.
Our country’s community colleges are often the easiest place for Americans seeking opportunity to find a training provider. Guaranteeing job retraining at our community colleges — a postsecondary system with substantial investments in work-based learning — would be both smart policy and good politics, immediately improving career pathways for all community college students and appealing to the majority of Americans who support making college tuition free.
A Dignity of Work Fund would also influence training programs across the country to become more effective at preparing Americans for jobs. It would do so by demonstrating the need for public funding for market-based practices and programs aligned to employer demand. Just as President Obama’s Race to the Top program incentivized states to change their education policies when applying for funds, these competitive grants would incentivize regional workforce development boards to become more accountable for producing market-based outcomes. This allows employment outcomes — not compliance provisions — to be used as the metric for negotiating training provider contracts and awarding any future public funding.
States that implement a Dignity of Work Fund could also launch hiring campaigns focused on mobilizing statewide employers to make changes to legacy hiring practices, such as removing four-year degree requirements as a proxy for hire. With over two-thirds of the job openings in this country created by 2020 expected not to require a bachelor’s degree, this campaign could expand the economy for Americans who have not finished college — a key constituency of President Trump’s base. It would also increase the likelihood of reaching the 5 million apprenticeships goal the Trump administration embraced last year.
To be sure, competitive grant programs would not serve every American looking for gainful employment; greater federal investment would eventually be needed. For that, we would likely need a president and Congress willing to use all available political capital to implement a federal guaranteed jobs program.
Given the intense partisanship that has made passing large pieces of bipartisan legislation nearly impossible, it is worth recalling that in 1944 the United States Congress unanimously passed the GI Bill. Among the benefits offered, the bill provided veterans of the Second World War educational and training assistance. We should never forget that we live in a country that used to do big things — that once viewed investments in Americans as our national prerogative — and still can.
Candidates running for elected office this fall and in 2020 will likely find that a guaranteed jobs program makes for good campaign rhetoric. To turn that rhetoric into reality, they should begin by guaranteeing job retraining now.
Jonathan Hasak is the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Year Up.