The bully pulpit

Workforce education has become good national politics, but dollars have been slow to follow.

Workforce policy may never capture the imagination like a moon shot or free college for all. But it’s not bad politics these days.

“Workforce is sexy now,” says Mike Bartlett, program manager for postsecondary and workforce success at the National League of Cities.

That’s particularly true for Democrats who have been struggling to connect with Americans without college degrees. It’s the thrust of recent coverage of President Biden’s bid for re-election. And it’s the backdrop of a new set of initiatives announced by the White House this week.

The new efforts—regional workforce hubs, an advanced manufacturing workforce “sprint,” and a Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy—are all focused on getting workers quickly retrained to fill millions of jobs being created by recovery dollars and major investments in infrastructure and key industries like semiconductors.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of such workforce news out of the administration with a major focus on:

  • Good jobs for workers without four-year degrees.
  • Helping metros and other regions outside the superstar cities develop specific industry strengths and employer clusters.

First Lady Jill Biden, who has spent her career teaching at community colleges, has been the public face of many of these announcements.

“When I was growing up, success meant one thing: getting a four-year degree… There are still a lot of people who feel that way,” she said at a national workforce convening this week. But the president, she said, isn’t one of them.

Jill Biden often tells her students, “Things are changing.”

“My husband, Joe, understands that, for most people, a high school diploma alone isn’t enough to find a great career,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s only one path to success.”

Culture shift: It’s easy to forget what a big departure this is from previous administrations, especially Democratic ones. President Obama began increasing investments in apprenticeships, a move that the Trump administration continued. And President Trump also pushed the federal government toward skills-based hiring, but in both cases those moves were drowned out by other narratives.

“Biden is the first president that’s reducing the need to get a college degree since World War II,” Douglas Brinkley, a leading presidential historian, recently told The New York Times.

For Biden, good jobs for Americans without degrees is a central part of his administration’s massive push to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, supercharge new regions of the country, and outcompete China.

Below the surface: In a new examination of the CHIPS Act for the Brookings Institution, however, Annelies Goger and Banu Ozkazanc-Pan argue that—despite the legislation’s bold goals for getting federal funds to people and places that have historically been left out of opportunity—the solutions it offers are piecemeal.

The United States largely has a “college for all” approach to getting students into science and technology careers, Goger and Ozkazanc-Pan write, and the CHIPS Act does little to change that. 

“Most other industrialized countries have paid, work-based pathways into STEM jobs,” they write. “Without multiple such pathways to quality jobs, the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. will likely remain skewed.”

Show Me the Money

Despite Biden’s focus on creating alternative pathways to good jobs, not many new dollars for workforce training have made it through Congress. Instead, cities, states, and even employers are being called on to direct some of the billions flowing through the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure law, and the CHIPS Act to fund training for the jobs those investments stand to create.

For example, the new Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy—a partnership between the National League of Cities and the Department of Labor—will be run by the league and supported by philanthropy, not federal funding. The academy will bring together 16 small (think Kokomo, Ind.) to large (like San Antonio and Newark, N.J.) cities to share ideas and get help creating new training models, bringing existing work to scale and embedding workforce development in applications for infrastructure funding and other grants.

The flow of federal investment that can be used to boost economic opportunity in cities—even if it’s not specifically training dollars—is enormous right now, says Bartlett, who will help run the new academy. “We’re probably not going to get this opportunity again for many years.”

The details: Learning from one another and creating partnerships across K-12, higher education, workforce agencies, and employers will be a major focus of the new academy, Bartlett says.

“Cities don’t control schools, don’t control colleges, but they have a very important role in bringing stakeholders together around the table,” he says. “They can use that bully pulpit.”

Kokomo, for example, will be partnering with the Ivy Tech Community College system and the local workforce board to train workers for a new $2.5B electric vehicle battery plant that is expected to bring 1,400 jobs to the city of about 60K. The state’s economic development corporation has put up $2M for training grants. Kokomo’s goal in joining the academy is not only to help residents compete for the battery plant jobs, but also to grow the region’s pipeline of qualified workers longer term in order to attract more employers that are part of the EV supply chain.

The goal at the end of the academy, Bartlett says, is to have 16 examples of what those kinds of partnerships can look like in cities of all sizes.

That said, it’s already clear that a bully pulpit and onetime recovery and infrastructure funds will only go so far to help more people land good jobs, says Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman, legislative director for human development for NLC.

Parting thought: “So much of this innovation happening between cities and the federal government is great,” Martinez-Ruckman says. “But the federal government hasn’t really invested much in workforce development.”

“Without putting those funds in there, we really will struggle to do this at scale in every community,” she says.

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