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The American economy is in dire need of life support, and federal stimulus efforts have been critical to limiting the economic damage. But cash infusions aren’t nearly enough. We need to do more than get Americans back to work; we need to prepare them for a future of work that looks very, very different.

That means investing in the U.S. workforce development system — which has been described by policymakers on both sides of the aisle as fragmented, uncoordinated and not agile enough to keep up with the pace of change. As higher education leaders, we’ve had front-row seats to the ways in which the relationship between education and work is broken — and we also see how government can play a role in fixing it.

A one-size-fits-all path that goes from high school to a four-year college degree to a lifelong career in one field simply isn’t the reality for most American workers anymore. In the wake of the pandemic, our obligation is not just to go “back to normal,” but to build a new workforce development system designed to meet the needs of today’s dynamic economy. What would such a program look like? How can federal and state governments augment existing efforts with other policy changes to help build a better, more resilient future of work?

The crisis we currently face demands a robust, long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery.

We may have seen our first hints of fresh thinking this summer, with President Trump’s recent executive order to prioritize skills over degrees in federal hiring. But that’s only the beginning. To keep pace with the 21st century workplace, workforce development programs must provide better advocacy, choices and career pathway guidance for every American. As federal lawmakers consider what the next stimulus package should include, what might a forward-thinking workforce agenda look like?

It would promote lifelong learning. We can no longer expect two or four years of education to last throughout a career. Today’s workers increasingly need portable education accounts, which they can own, control and take from job to job. As the Committee for Economic Development has argued, such accounts can enable low- and middle-income workers to access debt-free education opportunities at any point in their career trajectories, extending access to affordable, job-oriented learning experiences throughout workers’ careers.

It would facilitate learning while earning. A growing body of evidence suggests that apprenticeship programs can reduce the cost of employee churn, boost retention and help businesses build more diverse talent pipelines. They can also help workers build skills that are vital to employability, resilience and income mobility. In the wake of the pandemic, there is an urgent need to expand federal support for short-term paid internships and apprenticeships, coupled with robust employer incentives to help take such programs to scale.

It would prioritize skills, not just degrees. So-called degree inflation (requiring degrees for jobs that haven’t historically called for them) is locking millions of Americans, especially workers of color, out of economic mobility. To address both talent and equity gaps, employers must look beyond the four-year degree. The federal government should invest in a skills “marketplace” that facilitates the articulation and exchange of skills between workers and employers. Opportunity@Work’s recently launched marketplace is one such example.

It would be affordable, with companies paying. Many employers offer up to $5,250 per year in tax-free education assistance to their employees—an amount that (shockingly) has not changed in nearly 35 years. A bill to raise the limit to $12,000, roughly equivalent to the inflation-adjusted amount of the original tax exclusion, was recently introduced by Sens. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire,  and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana.

It would provide credentials that businesses actually need. Bipartisan momentum is building for a policy shift to allow low-income Americans to use Pell Grants for high-quality, career-relevant, short-form credentials (for example, medical assistant, IT certification or post-bachelor’s STEM teaching credential). This would represent a critical reapplication of higher education funding for workforce development at a time when accessible, skills-focused job training is needed more urgently than ever.

To be sure, a full-scale reimagining of the workforce development ecosystem will take time. But the crisis we currently face demands a robust, long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. The scale of the challenge is as intimidating as its urgency: Research suggests, and workers themselves know, that tens of millions of people need to learn new skills. But times of crisis can accelerate the pace of innovation. Federal, state and local policymakers, employers and universities must seize this moment in order to create a better equipped and more equitable workforce.

Scott Pulsipher is the president of Western Governors University and serves on the U.S. Commerce Department’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. Frank Britt is the CEO of Penn Foster, a company that provides training and reskilling programs for job seekers and working learners.

This article about workforce development was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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