Re-Skilling: the Key to Success for Most Unemployed Americans
Investments in education and training will result in high returns on those investments at a relatively low cost.
Today, the U.S. economy stands on the threshold of a new period of productivity as America begins to recover from the pandemic. One of the most critical matters Americans face is making sure no one is left behind on the road to the new and emerging U.S. economy.
Millions of individuals without critical skills are out of work and out of jobs to return to and a large percentage of them may stay that way if they do not gain the skills they need to re-enter the U.S. economy.
The pandemic’s impact has devastated our poorest and most vulnerable populations, especially communities of color. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that economically disadvantaged individuals, women, and people of color—especially those working in service industries—lost their jobs at three times the rate of other Americans in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. Their dislocations were compounded by the rapidly accelerating trends toward automation and technology for tasks requiring fewer skills.
This is not a new problem. For decades, populations of color, the poor, and the vulnerable have too often been excluded from success in school and opportunities to gain new skills to keep up with the changing labor market. However, the magnitude of this scenario has exploded as a result of the pandemic.
There is some good news. As the U.S. economy moves aggressively out of pandemic depression, there is and will be a huge demand for talented and skilled employees. Many economists are predicting that one of the largest growth periods in the nation’s history is ahead. Therefore, this appears to be an extraordinary moment of opportunity for the most vulnerable populations to succeed in the new U.S. economy—if carefully and tightly focused skills training is made widely available.
A job is essential to both the economic survival of individuals and families and, often, having a life of personal fulfillment and success. Almost everything is better when a person has a job. Almost everything is worse if a person does not—and that is the case for millions of people today.
Not only is it a moral responsibility to help the most vulnerable individuals re-enter the economy, but a compelling economic argument exists for placing new and urgent priority on re‑skilling the members of the workforce with the lowest level of skills. Such an investment will head off any number of personal, family, community, and societal damages caused by widespread joblessness.
We welcome and strongly support the large federal and state investments in early childhood education, public K–12, and post-secondary education, especially the high priority placed on recovering the massive “learning loss” among students and their disengagement from their own schools. Engagement and success in completing school is a critical strategy to prevent unemployment.
However, what is missing from the federal and state government strategies are the resources and direct help to the unemployed; helping those with the fewest skills gain the essential skills they need to compete in the labor market.
Decades of evidence show that a well-skilled workforce will be far more productive and will contribute far more to the economic success of individuals and the organizations for which they work. In short, “re‑skilling Americans” will pay enormous economic, social, and personal dividends, not only for the most vulnerable populations but for everyone.
Together, as president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, an organization with more than one hundred years of experience in helping vulnerable populations—especially populations of color—gain the skills and support they need to find work, and chairman of the Board of InStride, one of the nation’s most effective strategic workforce education platforms, we have decades of expertise in leadership roles at the federal, state, and city levels and in the private sector.
We know from that experience that education and training are at the center of effective organizations and successful local and national economies. Further, well-considered and well-designed investments in education and training will result in high returns on those investments at a relatively low cost.
The average period of time in which an individual receives unemployment benefits today is nearly twenty weeks. This fact reflects the urgent need for re-training and re-skilling. We and many others who provide critical employment, education, and training services through our organizations stand ready to work with the federal and state governments to design and help execute a highly targeted workforce training strategy focused on re-skilling the unemployed.
Ray Mabus is the chairman of InStride, seventy-fifth Secretary of the Navy, and the sixtieth governor of Mississippi.
Marc H. Morial is the president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League and the former Mayor of New Orleans.