Workforce Development Should Focus More on Fixing Work
While the full scope of recovery investments is not yet clear, it is clear that significant new investments in workforce development will be on the way. This is good news for a field that has been starved for resources for far too long. But for these resources to live up to their promise of building a better, more inclusive economy, the field of workforce development needs a new narrative that reflects current labor market realities.
The dominant story of equipping workers with “in-demand skills” as the key to labor market success is not only contradicted by decades of stagnant wages and the growing gap between worker productivity and compensation, it is also damaging to the goals of equity and job quality that the field has recently embraced. It ignores the role of systemic racism, pervasive sexism, and declining worker power in influencing labor market outcomes and implicitly accepts the persistent overrepresentation of women and workers of color in low quality work as a fair, market-determined outcome. The field needs a new mental model – one better aligned with labor market realities.
To build this new narrative, let’s first be honest about labor demand: there are plenty of jobs that don’t require a college degree or extensive pre-employment training. While it is true that occupations requiring a college degree are growing faster than those that don’t, it is also true that the large majority of jobs – 70 percent – require only a high school degree or less. And these are the jobs employers are currently struggling to fill. There is plenty of demand for labor that is willing to accept low wages, but the skills-based, “demand-driven” framework guiding the delivery of workforce services leaves practitioners with few tools to respond to this labor demand in ways that make progress toward goals of job quality and equity.
Second, let’s be honest about labor supply: There are plenty of people looking for work who are capable of performing a wide variety of jobs but are overlooked because of other factors. Training and credentials can make job candidates more competitive, but they are not enough to overcome the systemic discrimination and occupational segregation that are alive and well in our labor markets and penalize women and people of color. Occupations that are dominated by women pay less than those dominated by men, even at similar skill levels. At every level of educational attainment, Black and Hispanic workers earn less than White workers. Recent analysis shows that skills training/workforce development programs have reproduced rather than reduced persistent occupational segregation and poor job quality.
Indeed, the real problem with the current labor market is not the shortage of qualified workers, it is the shortage of quality of jobs. Our labor markets have systemic problems that individual service strategies will not address. Workforce development needs to see more of a role for itself in shaping labor demand, rather than just responding to it. This is not to say that workforce organizations should stop building worker skills – of course not. But in addition, the workforce development field needs strategies that are explicit in their intention to reduce inequity and to improve job quality. Here are four steps the field can take:
- Develop a Solidarity Mindset: Too often, workforce development treats workers as collections of problems—low skills, no credential, bad credit score, etc. – that need fixing so that they can be marketed to employers. We need an approach that values workers as full human beings. We need a practice that prioritizes listening to workers’ experience, engaging their ideas, and connecting them to a broader range of information and education than just the few skills needed to get the next job.
- Use Data Differently: Estimating the extent of the problem is important to setting goals and building partnerships. Too much current data analysis focuses on identifying only the good jobs in a region and leads workforce organizations to compete as they try to place too many people into too few good jobs. A more holistic approach to measuring job quality and equity gaps can provide a foundation for coordinated strategies that increase the number of good jobs and broaden access to them.
- Identify New Levers and Partners: Organizations need to think beyond career navigation and skills development and identify levers for improving job quality and addressing equity gaps. Community benefits agreements, living wage ordinances, and other actions that can shift the policy environment are examples of strategies to consider – and those strategies will require strong partnerships with worker advocates, community groups, and labor organizers.
- Connect the Dots between Workforce Development and Worker Protections: Although offices of workforce development generally sit inside state and federal Departments of Labor, there is typically little communication or coordination with the agencies responsible for enforcing labor laws and worker protections. A new narrative that puts workers first can support a more coordinated approach to addressing problems often considered outside the scope of workforce development like wage theft, discrimination, and safety violations.
Job quality and racial and gender inequities are systemic problems, and they need systemic solutions. Congress appears to be on the verge of historic investments in workforce development at a time when working people really need the help. But for these investments to deliver for workers, and particularly women and workers of color, we must stop averting our eyes from the sea of low-wage work in which so many working people are floundering. It’s time for workforce development to build common cause with organizations that share their goal: connecting people to decent, dignified, family-sustaining work.
Maureen Conway is a Vice President and Executive Director, Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute
Mary Alice McCarthy is the Director of the Center on Education and Labor at New America.
Alex Camardelle is the Director of Workforce Policy at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies