The White House Tried Something Old. Americans Shouldn't Buy It.
In introducing her father at the Republican National Convention last week, Ivanka Trump cast the administration as having met its pledge to support American workers. In fact, she recently launched “Find Something New,” a new career navigator aimed to help jobless workers look up “no-college-required” job postings.
Since then, the economy has continued to collapse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: GDP has taken its worst plunge ever, unemployment rates have stayed put in the double digits, and the 31 million workers either receiving unemployment benefits or having applied for them, have lost the extra $600 per month in jobless aid. And there are only about 6 million jobs open right now.
For all these reasons, Ivanka Trump’s campaign seems callous and out of touch. But is she off base?
Nearly six months into the pandemic, the U.S. economy is nearly 13 million jobs below where it was before the outbreak. Underlying the ad campaign’s criticisms and accolades is a shared assumption about how and why workers get hired: Gaps in skills or credentials are the reason workers remain stuck in the low-wage economy. This assumption tracks with similar claims that generous unemployment benefits create disincentives for jobless individuals to find work.
These ideas are prevalent and influential. Several Fortune 500 CEOs not only joined President Trump’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, they guided the development of the Find Something New website.
Education and workforce training are, of course, predictors of economic well-being. But arguments focused on skills gaps shift blame for poor-quality jobs to workers themselves. They don’t account for labor markets that allow for widening wage gaps and decreasing worker voice, occupational segregation and hiring discrimination against women and people of color, absence of employment benefits and balance at work, and declining workplace health and safety training.
Even after considering protective factors that can help workers advance, such as increased education and training levels, systematic inequality means some workers are more likely to get good jobs. For example, a significant Black-white wage gap remains across various levels of education, while Black workers with advanced degrees experience higher unemployment rates compared with their white counterparts.
In this extraordinary moment, we must do more than offer training programs that don’t guarantee good jobs.
Workers and employers alike care about improving job quality, but only the federal government can create an even playing field nationally. If the current administration is serious about helping Americans find something new, Ivanka Trump and other leaders can work with Congress to establish a set of workforce commitments between business and labor to create better jobs.
What should these workforce commitments contain?
First, the K-12, higher education, and workforce development ecosystem must all have successful preparation for the 21st century workplace as a common goal. This includes middle and high schools making sure students receive work-based learning experiences before graduation. Adult education programs should bake in foundational college and career readiness skills, such as digital literacy and core capabilities.
Next, it’s high time we guaranteed all workers basic protections, including paid leave, predictable scheduling, and comprehensive health care and retirement benefits. Rather than an activity that’s undertaken pre-work, employer-sponsored training should be a part of any good job.
Workplace safety education and worker voice must also come with any job. Labor-management partnerships and portable benefit funds are promising solutions for standardizing a range of these job protections. The pandemic underlines the gulf between the work-from-home workforce and those who must report to the workplace, with or without protective protocols and equipment.
To tackle yawning racial and gender gaps in hiring, especially the overrepresentation of marginalized groups of workers in certain jobs, workforce policies can build on the tenets of equal employment opportunity and drive equitable and inclusive workplace practices. Among a suite of workforce redesign features, establishing incentives for job creators to take up equitable hiring practices, including adopting fair chance hiring, targeted hire standards, and apprenticeship utilization requirements, will equip them to innovate and address systemic inequalities.
Without a commitment to actually improve employment standards, Ivanka Trump and the administration have dressed up an inequitable workforce system that may leave unemployed workers with more debt, and without assurances that the jobs they go back to, or new ones they seek out, will have better working conditions.
Instead, redesigning workforce policies to improve job quality together reinforce a commitment to create better jobs. It leaves well-prepared individuals confident that their job will afford economic security regardless of their life circumstances while also addressing industry needs, with employers knowingly competing for and hiring talent because of the high-quality jobs they’ve created.
And pledges of this magnitude take leadership and vision, not another job search engine.
Livia Lam, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Thomas Showalter is Executive Director of the National Youth Employment Coalition.