The Post COVID-19 Workforce Will Need 'Shovel-Ready' Training

The Post COVID-19 Workforce Will Need 'Shovel-Ready' Training
Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP
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In the wake of the 2008 recession, President Obama introduced a new term into the national lexicon to describe recovery projects most worthy of investment: “shovel-ready.” The term has its roots in upstate New York, where a local power company used it to refer to development sites that already had the necessary electrical, gas, sewer lines, and permits. President Obama used it to refer to projects that were far enough along that, with just enough federal investment, they could create jobs, and economic impact.


Today, we find ourselves in the midst of an economic upheaval that has sparked both an unprecedented spike in unemployment, and a massive federal response. As the specter of COVID-19 looms large in America’s economic forecast, talk of upskilling and retraining workers abounds. If you buy into the narrative that is becoming increasingly popular among workforce development optimists, hordes of displaced restaurant workers will soon close skill gaps for tech employers; retail workers will retrain into the most in-demand healthcare roles.


Sadly, the reality may not be quite so rosy. Displaced workers are grappling with precious little information to navigate training amid a labor market riptide. Local labor markets are highly variable, and public training investments — which can lag behind demand by decades — don’t always map to the most in-demand fields. Community colleges, which have often been the primary recipient of public investment in workforce training, are stuck between a rock and a hard place as they use limited resources to support students who are more likely to be low-income and balancing work or family commitments with their studies.


In order to head off the worst economic fallout from the pandemic, both the public and private sectors will need to rethink their approach to upskilling — by ensuring that the training programs they invest in are “shovel-ready” themselves. Fortunately, we already have exemplars for what such programs could look like, in ways that can serve as a blueprint for federal and state policymakers looking to inject life back into struggling regional economies.


The most obvious criteria for a shovel-ready training program are time to completion and labor market alignment: does the curriculum match with the jobs that today’s economy demands, and how quickly can it get participants back into the workforce? At the beginning of this year, LinkedIn reported that AI and data science topped the list of emerging skills, and short-form training programs in those fast-growing fields were all the rage. Today, of course, the needs in the healthcare space are much more urgent, and programs like NextStep have stepped up by offering free CNA training to frontline health workers. Partnerships at the local level, armed with new forms of economic data, can help policymakers, training providers, and employers identify and anticipate near-term skill shortages — and rapidly upskill displaced workers to close those gaps.


What else characterizes a shovel-ready training program? Consider financing: We can remove barriers to access by making up-front investments in students that don’t require debt. Income share agreements, skills-based financing, or Merit America’s unique pay-for-success structure, are a few such models. Hiring partners are also a critical element of shovel-readiness, as our own work in Louisville has proven: A program announced this spring offers free access to General Assembly’s tech training programs in order to close skill gaps at Humana, the city’s largest employer. Finally, look to programs that build their own talent pipelines by offering on-ramps or prep work that equip students with the foundational skills to succeed in training.


Students of recent history may know that the coda to President Obama’s touting of shovel-readiness was not a happy one. By 2010, the president had gone so far as to admit that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” A closer look reveals that this wasn’t quite true: Some efforts, like a river cleanup project in Aiken, S.C., were hailed as exactly the type of investment that a local community needed to see important work through. The challenge may just have been that the Administration didn’t define shovel-readiness clearly enough, so the right projects were hard to find.


In the coming months, we’ll face a crisis of potentially greater magnitude — which presents a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a decade ago. Shovel-ready training programs are out there, we know what they look like, and they have the potential to jump-start the country’s economic engine at a time when we desperately need it.


Jane Swift was Acting Governor of Massachusetts from 2001 to 2003. Jake Schwartz is co-founder and CEO of General Assembly.

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