Washington, D.C. March 1 – Last week, the National Skills Coalition hosted their annual Skills Summit, where Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh discussed issues facing the American workforce. Moderated by Andy Van Kluenen, CEO of the National Skills Coalition, the panel discussion centered around how agencies will design, implement, and evaluate skills training programs outlined by the Build Back Better program.
Centering Equity in the Workforce
This panel discussion featured a special focus on the unique issues faced by workers of color and strategies to serve these job seekers in an equitable manner. Further, the panel underscored the critical need for local communities to effectively engage in the job development process, address job quality challenges, and make the most of educational investments being offered by the federal Department of Education.
First, when each Secretary was asked what their department’s primary mission was under the Biden Administration, Secretary Walsh was quick to point out job creation, noting that “since President Biden has taken office, there have been a historic number of 6.7 million new jobs.” Secretary Raimondo emphasized that there is inherent teamwork between their three departments, saying that “Education teaches the future workforce, Labor helps those that fall through the cracks with further vocational training, and Commerce creates the job opportunities for American employees.”
The intersection of Education and the Workforce
Secretary Cardona seconded Secretary Raimondo’s point, emphasizing that agencies need to break out of their silos and work together. The former commissioner of Connecticut’s school system pointed out the “need to have the tech industry come in and invest resources in giving K-12 students the technology they need to work in the modern economy.”
Van Kluenen tugged on the thread of Secretary Walsh’s point about economic growth. He said that that despite the addition of 467,000 new jobs last month, “there is a frustration among some workers still looking for work.” Secretary Raimondo responded by bringing up the difficulty people face finding work without an education beyond high school. She added that “most workers don’t necessarily need a college education, but vocation training at the community college level. That also requires wraparound services such as childcare for working parents.” Secretary Raimondo brought up that the need for further education is a pre-existing problem with the economy, and has been an issue long before the pandemic. Van Kluenen continued to push the Secretaries on how programs are equitably implemented. Secretary Raimondo said that the administration is expanding broadband access, and as a component, states must train a diverse workforce to install those broadband fiber optic cables.
Community Colleges as Pathways into the Workforce
Education Secretary Cardona was asked about how community colleges play a larger part in workforce training and development. In response, he announced a new $988 million program to secure day care, housing, and food security for community college students. He discussed how community colleges are malleable to community needs, and can serve middle-aged workers with retraining, by telling the story of a woman that wanted to be a nurse after surviving COVID-19. He emphasized the need for pipelines between community colleges and employers, including technical support from manufacturers to provide better training. The other Secretaries agreed. Secretary Raimondo quoted an Iowa community college president who said that that community colleges “are workforce engines,” but added that “training is only valuable with a job.” She said that some employers have been unresponsive to community college presidents. Secretary Walsh noted that “community colleges are the primary source of higher education in Rural America.”
Secretary Cardona then refocused the conversation on job readiness for students, discussing a one-year IT community college program that had a local job guarantee. He noted that there are many students that are drowning in student loan debt. Van Kluenen asked about the success gap caused by the digital gap, and Secretary Cardona replied by bringing up the Biden Administration’s commitment to expanding broadband access to narrow that gap.
Overall, the discussion focused on the need to use community colleges as an employment pipeline for vocational workers, eliminate the digital divide by investing in broadband, and utilizing public-private partnerships to develop jobs locally.
“When it was passed with broad, bipartisan support in 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) invested unprecedented resources into efforts to get people with barriers to employment into the labor force,” said Olegario “Ollie” Cantos VII, RespectAbility’s Chairman. “Now, after the pandemic that has reshaped our economy, it is time to devote significant attention to supporting the economic advancement of students, jobseekers, and entrepreneurs with disabilities. Our nation needs further legislative action and cooperative action to expand effective solutions for jobseekers with significant barriers to employment.”
The success or failure of getting more people with disabilities integrated into the workforce impacts thousands of communities and millions of families nationwide. According to the Census Bureau, there are more than fifty-six million Americans living with a disability. Disabilities include visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss and non-visible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health, or autism.
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