Building Back American Job Training in the Post-COVID Era

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.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence