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Building Back American Job Training in the Post-COVID Era

Building Back American Job Training in the Post-COVID Era

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In a well-written article published by the Fordham Institute, the National Center on Education and the Economy’s President Emeritus Marc Tucker writes about the dual workforce emerging in America after the pandemic.

Segment 1 of the workforce features highly educated, technically adept workers who can conduct their jobs while using a computer from their homes. These workers continued to work during the pandemic and continued to collect their paychecks. Their productivity increased, likely because they no longer had to spend two hours a day commuting to the office.

Also, these workers have employer-provided health insurance and 401(k) plans. Their employers will likely allow them to continue to work from home post-pandemic. COVID-19 has been an inconvenience to them.

Segment 2 of the workforce includes restaurant workers, retail store clerks and cashiers, bartenders, office cleaners, taxi drivers, childcare workers, farm workers, miners, steel workers, butchers, hotel workers, warehouse workers, and grocery store stockers and cashiers. These groups are comprised of workers with less than a college education. They are the majority of Americans and work in industries decimated by COVID-19.

The outlook for Segment 2 workers is grim. Unfortunately, many of the jobs they lost are not coming back.

For instance, many manufacturing and warehouse jobs are being automated. Restaurants will come back but many of them will have terminals for customers to place orders.

Similarly, self-driving trucks will be here before self-driving cars, but eventually millions of workers will be unemployed due to automation. COVID-19 accelerated the pace of automation, particularly at companies with sufficient cash and low demand. As demand for their business bounces back, these companies face the choice of rehiring workers or replacing them with machines.

Mr. Tucker writes that much of this situation was forecast 31 years ago by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in their report, “America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!” That report outlined that advancing globalization and automation would create an environment in which the country could either increase the skills of our workforce or lower our standard of living.

Sadly, Mr. Tucker reports, we did nothing. He cites the National Assessment of Educational Progress that there has been no improvement in the skills of graduating high school seniors in the U.S. while more and more countries have exceeded the U.S. in terms of graduation rates and student achievement. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the basic skills of millennials in the American workforce are the lowest or tied for lowest among all the countries they surveyed.

The Fed’s goal of full employment in the U.S. will not be achieved, according to Mr. Tucker, until we improve the skills of our workforce. Graduates from high schools in Asia have the equivalent of two and a half years more education than American high school graduates.

The high school vocational education system has almost disappeared. Community colleges have adjusted to the diminished performance of our high school graduates by offering a curriculum that would be regarded as a high school curriculum by the standards of countries leading the OECD tables. While community colleges are the primary source of vocational education in America, the quality of their technical training is far behind the quality of vocational education in Switzerland, Singapore, and many other countries.

The internet now makes it possible for better-educated workers in other countries to work for American firms without leaving their country or home. The first wave of globalization, largely completed now, was in manufacturing. The second wave is largely focused on services and other work that can be done remotely. As this stage progresses, only those with better education and skills will keep their jobs.

Mr. Tucker recommends that the Biden administration focus on building a new system of education and training because the one we have now is inadequate. In addition to providing training from community colleges for millions of unemployed people, Tucker recommends that they be provided with income support during the period of time that they are in training. He cites the recent McKinsey study that I wrote about as making it clear that all future job growth will be in high-skill, high-wage jobs.

We can’t boost the skills of our Segment 2 workers without a new job training and education system, writes Mr. Tucker. He recommends that the Biden administration establish a presidential commission tasked with completing its work in two years.

At the same time, the commission should issue interim reports so that some of the elements of the lifelong learning system needed by the U.S. will begin their development. We can’t build it back to where it was 40 years ago. We need to build it back better.

I agree with Mr. Tucker. I hope that President Biden does as well. I never understood why our  school systems reduced the number of vocational schools available. Even less comprehensible is the dumbing down of our high school curriculum, making our workforce less competitive globally.

The final straw will be the hiring of professionals and skilled workers from other countries to perform jobs previously performed by U.S. workers. While there are a number of educational start-ups providing upskilling in areas like coding, none of them can provide the scale that our nation’s community colleges can, particularly for skills where hands-on training is required. Assuming the pandemic risk reduces substantially six months from now, it will be interesting to see if these issues have been appropriately recognized and addressed by the Biden administration by the fall of 2021.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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