To ‘Build Back Better,’ we must prepare people for the jobs we’re creating

Opinion: As Congress shapes an expansive ‘Build Back Better’ plan, it can’t forget funds for retraining, writes Maria Flynn, CEO of JFF. Otherwise, the legislation could unintentionally create millions of new jobs without preparing workers to fill them.

Congress is shaping an expansive Build Back Better plan that, in combination with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, will create millions of new jobs in small businesses and industries like construction, manufacturing, technology, healthcare, energy, and direct care.

This is welcome news as the government winds down the expansion of unemployment insurance, which has been a lifeline for many Americans during the pandemic. But there’s a catch: millions of those people aren’t prepared to move into the new jobs Congress envisions.    

The House Education and Labor Committee recognizes this—and last week voted to invest nearly $80 billion for the reskilling of jobseekers and workers in its portion of the Build Back Better plan. That is close to levels originally recommended in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. It would include:

  • $40 billion for the direct delivery of skills training, career navigation and support services for the millions of dislocated workers, adults and youth who continue to experience barriers to education and employment as a result of the pandemic.
  • Significant investments in other proven reskilling strategies including apprenticeships, sector initiatives, and community college and workforce partnerships.

While the House bill showcases a clear understanding that workers are essential to economic recovery, there is a threat that these funding levels may be decreased dramatically in the final version of the Build Back Better plan. If we are not careful, this could unintentionally create millions of new jobs without preparing workers to fill them.  

Even before the pandemic, the country was facing a growing shortage of workers with the skills needed for infrastructure jobs. While middle-skill jobs accounted for 53 percent of the U.S. labor market, just 43 percent of the nation’s workers were trained for those kinds of jobs. The challenge has only grown deeper over the last 18 months.

In construction, for example, despite regaining 80 percent of its workforce lost during the pandemic, the industry is still facing a shortage of 430,000 workers. And that number is expected to grow substantially in the coming years—even before the infrastructure package further boosts demand. Most of the growth jobs in construction do not require college degrees but do require skills and credentials provided through high quality, short-term workforce development programs. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the nation’s workforce development system has received negligible dedicated resources to respond to the critical reemployment needs of impacted workers. With the unemployment insurance expansion ending and an infrastructure bill on the horizon, we need to change that now. Workforce development is more critical than ever to ensure that individuals who have lost jobs as the result of COVID have access to skills development and comprehensive career navigation services to prepare for in-demand careers.  

This is especially poignant as the majority of workers who lost employment in the pandemic were in lower-paying jobs, and many of them are people of color who have historically been marginalized from economic opportunity. While unemployment is at last falling across the country, it remains especially high among Black and Latino workers. Millions of women have yet to rejoin the workforce. It is imperative that we dramatically expand access to training opportunities and career services that help these workers secure in-demand employment that they have historically been left out of.

As a veteran of the Labor Department who often had to make tough choices, I certainly understand that there are limited resources in any major funding initiative, and that priorities must be established. I’m also a big believer that we are overdue for a deeper debate on what the ideal future-facing workforce system is for our country. But in the immediate term, providing career navigation and reskilling assistance to the very workers who have been hardest hit by this pandemic should absolutely be among our top priorities.

We can’t build a more equitable future without expanding access to workforce-related training programs that are creating on-ramps to good jobs, or without investing in the necessary career services and navigation supports to help people find their way. To “Build Back Better,” we must make these investments, or the new jobs we create will be out of reach for the millions of Americans most impacted by the pandemic.

Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF, a national nonprofit focused on driving transformation in the American workforce and education systems.

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