Closing the Skills Gap through Workforce Development Policy

On December 4, Governance Studies at Brookings hosted an event to highlight the importance of understanding the workforce skills gap in order to create effective public policies aimed at creating equitable economic growth in America. Moderator Elisabeth Jacobs, a fellow in Governance Studies and author of a new paper “Principles for Reforming Workforce Development and Human Capital Policies in the United States,” asked a series of questions to which the four expert panelists responded.

What is the path forward for creating the health care workforce that we need for the future?

Laura Chenven, director of the Healthcare Career Advancement Program, said that the current diverse—culturally and linguistically—workforce “can be a workforce of the future.” She said that an issue her network is looking at is “how do we take this talented, motivated workforce—many of them entry-level jobs whether it’s in homecare, environmental service workers, housekeepers in nursing homes and hospitals, or nursing assistants—and create career pathways that can support their aspirations to make a better life for themselves and their families but also improve the services that the health care industry is delivering?”

“In today’s very diverse world, the issue of cultural competency and cultural skills—both linguistically and culturally—is not just a nice thing. It’s actually essential to provide the kind of care we need,” she said.

Chenven spoke to the unintended consequences of policy, such as people being held back by cherry-picking: there is a scarcity of room in colleges and people with the highest academic skills may not be the people needed most.

Another issue is the lack of “nimbleness … in many of our educational institutions.” “Industry is much nimbler than education,” she said. “Things are changing so fast in the healthcare industry; we need education to respond quickly, but the way in which funding is structured again tends not to go into these multi-employer sector partnerships … but instead goes through colleges who may or may not be as tied into industry as the industry needs them to be.”

What’s the path forward for creating a manufacturing workforce that continues to allow America to be globally competitive?

Lance LaVergne, director of talent acquisition for Alcoa first noted the resurgence of manufacturing in the United States, but also the concern about continuing to finding the people. He spoke to the perception problem about opportunities in the manufacturing sector. It’s not an assembly line anymore. “You wouldn’t even recognize a manufacturing plant these days,” he said.

“Our educational system isn’t developing young people in particular with the skills to go into more advanced manufacturing kind of roles. Manufacturing is not cool, it’s not sexy, it’s not fun. Young people in particular don’t think of that as a place they would want to go,” he said. Speaking to the entry-level, shop floor type jobs, “We have to encourage people to think more broadly and more positively about the opportunities that exist there, and then we have to provide them the skills to pursue those jobs. … We have lost sight of the value of doing things with your hands … How do we regain some of the cache of being someone who has a skilled trade as opposed to pursuing a four-year college degree?”

LaVergne also emphasized the corollary, that “we do need STEM-educated college trained people,” as well as looking beyond the pool of traditional-college-aged people: “There’s a whole pool of able-workers who are the chronically unemployed, long-term unemployed, returning military veterans and others who would be great candidates for these opportunities” with the right training and skills-building, especially through the community college system.

Community colleges are one of the institutional partners in our workforce system. How can community colleges effectively collaborate with other institutional stakeholders?

Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development with California Community Colleges, said that “The network of community colleges are a national asset and should be key players at teh table when it comes to closing the skills gap.”

She also spoke to a perception problem, this time about community colleges. Many think of them “as the cheaper way of doing your first two years and then transferring. So a lot of public policies are set up with that in mind.”

Ton-Quinlivan spoke to data on wage data of students in career technical education pathways. The median wage of students five years out of students who took vocational sequences in community colleges is $68,000 compared to in the thirties for non-vocational pathways (putting aside people who went on to the bachelor degree). 

“From a public policy viewpoint, the focus hasn’t really honed in on what does it take to unleash the power of the career technical education side of our community colleges.” How, she asked, can the education system play point with industry? She explained how California Community Colleges have organized to target investment at sectors important to regional economies, simplifying contacts with industry and industry training needs.

At the intersection of education and employment policy, where do you see the most promising areas for reform in existing legislation, considering the political climate? Should we abandon the Workforce Investment Act?

Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, answered by saying that “We need to build an operating system for the education and training system that is an information-based operating system that I think attaches less to high schools, more to post-secondary education and the labor market. There are fairly obvious ways to do that … and it is happening in the states and at the federal level.” Carnevale explained that “the basic feed stocks” of this system are the use of wage record data from employers and automated transcript data. “The hookup between wage records and transcript data … is the future of this game and should run across the entire system.” 

How are you using data to achieve some of the objectives we’ve talked about?

Stemming from Prof. Carnevale’s data concepts, Jacobs directed the panelists in a discussion about the use of data, stating that “Data needs to be put into action to solve problems.” She asked, “How are you using data in order to achieve some of the objectives we’ve talked about so far?”

Ton-Quinlivan described how the “construct of time” is misaligned between the educational sector and industry, which “is actually holding our post-secondary institutions back from really solving the skills gap.” As she explained,

the speed at which business is operating and the life-cycle of skills, it’s evolving so quickly yet everything we do as institutions in post-secondary is around this unit of time called the credit hour … rather than mastery of content. The way that students go through has to do with credit hours and how their financial aid packagers are structured is around credit hour … Everything that is set up in terms of public policies reinforces this notion of time that no longer works … to run alongside the needs of industry.

She also said that “our systems need to be structured in a way that people can come in and out and get stackable credentials,” noting that many people will have seven careers over a lifetime.

Chenven noted that “the issue in healthcare is that people develop competencies over time.” Competency-based assessments start to address the issues Ton-Quinlivan brought up. She said that “We need to be able to fund experiments, and then document them … so that we have the evidence basis in the data that says … this works better than what we’ve been used to doing and now we can change.”

We are finding … colleges structurally … [don’t] have credits that transfer between the vocational departments and academic departments …

LaVergne noted the cultural challenges that might be needed in these shifts in higher learning. He asked whether there are there cultural barriers in our educational institutions that will pose the challenge to competency-based learning?

Carnevale said that “I know that cultural clash intimately,” describing hearing from the Classics Department at Georgetown. “I think there’s a problem in working it out, and that is African-American, Latino and working class kids and poor kids will get the job training … and the white middle-class kids, upper middle-class kids, will get the more general education which has value in and of itself and value in the labor market.”

He cited a study that found: “since 1994, 82 percent of the new enrollments among white kids were at the top 468 colleges and 72 percent of the new enrollments since 1994 among African-Americans and Latinos and low-income kids were in the open-admission, two-year schools and bottom-tier four-year institutions.” So, the education system, while providing more and more access to education, is “immediately differentiating that access by class and race very fast.”

What is one way the federal government gets in the way of effective workforce development strategies, and one way that it’s effective part of the solution?

Jacobs followed up with a two-part question for the panelists, asking them to name one way the federal government gets in the way, and one way it helps, in developing effective workforce development strategies.

LaVergne spoke to the dual problem of Pell Grant funding: it’s not applicable to certification type programs but if we’re trying to get people skills it seems a good thing to do is to change how funding Pell Grant is used.

Ton-Quinlivan addressed the way financial aid is structured toward the individual only. On the Workforce Invesment Act side, she said, “Especially in underserved communities that … are competing in this economy … we need to rethink what metrics we have … Everything is oriented toward the individual … [but] perhaps we should consider … what’s the highest level of attainment of education, on wage, for a household,” because “it may be the investment in the household that may get us out of these circumstances much faster.”

Chenven addressed the limited funding:

the value we are placing on our education structure and on job creation, job development is just terrible. And so we can talk about how to divvy up a really pretty small pot … but there’s just not enough to go around in such a critical area. So, the government could do a lot more, it doesn’t have enough money to do that, I think that speaks to the political environment that we’re in. I think that we have a real crisis and the issue of career development and supporting disadvantaged communities moving forward … all of us are doing everything we can with absolutely insufficient resources.

Carnevale said that the federal government “doesn’t have a jobs policy.” In the end, he said:

what’s too bad about this is where the federal government fails the most is it doesn’t have a jobs policy. In truth, in the end, this is the jobs policy and it’s a very weak and slender reed because education and training doesn’t create jobs except people who are employed in in education and training … the great failure here is on the employment policy side and there’s a vacuum there in my judgement. … If we could stimulate demand a lot of this would work a lot better. …

The good thing is, with the money short, although the path of least resistance is to allow … the money flow to healthcare and to pensions in the case of the fed and in the case of the states, too, … so you gradually let education and training die on the vine. That’s the path of least resistance. Confronting these issues … is difficult and there is no center to deal between right and left on these questions. But I do think the one thing that they are doing is the gainful employment regulations are the point of the spear in this effort.

An audience Q&A session followed.

Event audio is available below; full event video is also available.