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Saeed Shareef badly wanted to get out of the restaurant industry.

Shareef, 30, had started working as a server a decade earlier, after realizing he couldn’t afford the price of a four-year college degree. He’d done stints at Buffalo Wild Wings, Papa John’s and The Cheesecake Factory. But the money wasn’t great, the work was unsatisfying, and poor treatment from customers left him increasingly fed up.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and Shareef was laid off. That’s been an all-too-common scenario. But what happened next has not. Shareef’s mother saw a TV commercial for a program that offered 12 weeks of training for technology careers, tuition-free. Buoyed by unemployment benefits, Shareef enrolled, and four months later, he started work as a junior web developer for a retail company in his hometown of Cincinnati.

workforce retraining
Saeed Shareef retrained as a junior web developer after a decade working as a restaurant server. Workforce experts say stories like his are too rare Credit: Saeed Shareef

Workforce experts say that Shareef’s story should be routine. But it is exceptional. With an overlapping and sometimes confusing array of job training programs scattered around the country, and too little coordinated information about what sorts of training various employers need, there is no central place for workers to turn for help or some assurance that their investment in retraining will pay off. Shareef found the program via the sheer good luck of his mother noticing the TV ad.

Approximately 10.7 million Americans are out of work, nearly twice as many as before the pandemic struck. Yet labor and education leaders warn that the country is almost uniquely ill-equipped to help these people gather new skills and prepare for new careers. That could have lasting effects both for these individuals’ financial security and for the broader economy, by stymieing innovation and growth and deepening economic polarization. It’s also a racial justice issue, since Black and Latino workers are more likely to have lost jobs in the pandemic than white workers.

The United States invests less in workforce development as a share of its GDP than many other developed nations, just 0.11 percent.

The United States has, historically, done a poor job of helping people who have been displaced by offshoring, automation, recessions and other economic dislocation. The country invests less in workforce development as a portion of GDP than many other developed nations, just 0.11 percent, which is half the share it spent in 1985. Meanwhile, its programs to help workers into higher-wage jobs have an uneven record at best. Information about which education programs offer a path to economic security is sometimes limited and inaccessible. Collaboration between education and business groups tends to be weak. And because government policy has tended to focus on the individual worker, and less on influencing the hiring and employment practices of businesses, workers can be left in the lurch even if they successfully complete programs in fields that are billed as high-demand.   

“What I would worry most about is how to help the longer-term unemployed, who basically haven’t been working since the pandemic started,” said David Deming, professor of public policy at Harvard University and faculty director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. “How do we help them get back on their feet? The U.S. doesn’t do a good job, under any circumstances, of helping people make those transitions.” 

Related: How career and technical education shuts out Black and Latino students from high-paying professions

To be sure, the United States faces greater challenges than smaller nations in developing a coherent, nimble approach to retraining workers who have lost jobs. The federal government alone runs dozens of training-related programs, and state and nonprofit programs abound, too. Meanwhile, the K-12 education system tends to focus on graduating people with general skills rather than steering them toward specific jobs. Weak labor policies and a thin social safety net also impede people’s transitions into new careers.

Still, Deming and other experts say that governments, businesses and education groups can do more right now to prepare for the expected demand for training exacerbated by the pandemic. Steps include improving collaborations between labor and education agencies, investing in community colleges at a time when they face falling revenue due to state cuts and enrollment declines, and increasing corporate transparency about hiring and businesses’ investment in their workers and training.

workforce retraining
The Ohio Means Jobs center in Cincinnati prepares people for new careers in fields such as health care and trucking.

There will also be a need to assess the precise economic fallout from the pandemic and how it has permanently transformed the labor market. At present, it’s not clear exactly which roles will come back and which will vanish forever. Still, labor market trends that predate the pandemic are accelerating. Low- and middle-skill jobs are being automated as companies adapt to social distancing; tech jobs remain a bright spot in an otherwise grim economy; and more positions in virtually every field demand digital skills. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 workers have few or no digital skills, yet up to 43 percent of those workers are in jobs that require some computer use, according to research from the National Skills Coalition. 

Related: Where are the educational pathways to good jobs?

Despite the soaring unemployment rate, many colleges and job training groups have yet to see a flood of displaced workers. In a way, that’s not surprising, given concerns about the safety of in-person instruction, the quality of online learning and the lack of clarity around whether jobs will recover from the economic crisis, and if so, which ones.

“Job seekers are hunkering down,” said Kevin Holt, director of the Ohio Means Jobs center in Cincinnati, one of roughly 2,400 federally funded job centers across the United States. “They are frightened, they don’t have day care, they are hoping their unemployment will last them through this weird recession we’re in.”

That’s meant some groups and agencies that advance workforce retraining haven’t spent all the CARES money they were allocated early in the pandemic. The second stimulus bill, passed in late December, extended the deadline by a year, until December 31, 2021, for groups to spend those funds.  

But workforce experts say this picture of empty classrooms and enrollment offices may soon change — and education organizations must be ready. They warn against a repeat of what happened after the Great Recession, when an infusion of federal money in the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis ran out quickly, long before the recovery took hold. Job centers were “overwhelmed” with laid-off workers and waitlists ran into the hundreds, recalled Stephanie Beckhorn, director of employment and training for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

workforce retraining
Project Quest, a San Antonio group that prepared the workers pictured here for health care careers, partners with a community college system to help people retrain for better-paying jobs. Credit: Project Quest

David Megenhardt, executive director of the United Labor Agency, which runs the one-stop job center in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, saw the same thing in his region.  “In the Great Recession there were a lot of people who lost their prime earning years, and maybe never returned to the workforce or re-entered well below the wages they were earning in 2008,” he said. “We don’t want to lose a generation of people.”

For now, some community colleges and workforce groups have ramped up short-term training to quickly get people into jobs that are available, in fields like logistics and food production. They are also doubling down on preparing people for career opportunities they’d focused on before the pandemic, such as health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing.   

Nearly 1 in 3 workers have few or no digital skills, yet up to 43 percent of those workers are in jobs that require some computer use, according to research from the National Skills Coalition.   

Project Quest, a San Antonio organization that offers multiyear career-oriented education, added shorter-term training this fall via a partnership with the city and other groups for people in professions decimated by the pandemic. Participants receive free tuition plus a stipend. Project Quest will also benefit from a grassroots effort designed to strengthen the city’s workforce development programs overall: In November, San Antonio residents voted overwhelmingly in support of a ballot measure to reallocate an existing sales tax toward helping up to 40,000 workers in the city get workforce rein training or earn college degrees geared toward in-demand fields.  

With money from the local county government, Lone Star College, which serves Greater Houston, rolled out noncredit programs for in-demand jobs that students could complete in less than three months. The free training focuses on preparing people for work in fields including accounting, welding, nursing and information technology. The college tries to introduce students across all the programs to basic tech skills, said Linda Head, senior associate vice chancellor for external and employer relations. “More than ever before, the soft skills matter and the IT skills matter,” she said, “so we had to integrate those.”

Related: Are colleges finally going to start training students for the workforce?

In Michigan, Beckhorn said her agency has used federal CARES Act and Department of Labor money to try to reduce some of the financial barriers that keep people from acquiring new skills. It recently helped launch Futures for Frontliners, which pays for Michigan residents who worked essential jobs during the pandemic to attend two-year colleges, tuition-free. The program is part of an effort to boost the share of people in the state who have postsecondary education to 60 percent by 2030, up from 45 percent in 2019.    

Even with free tuition, though, it can still be difficult for workers to pivot back into higher education.

workforce retraining
Erin Smoot has worked in retail for nearly two decades. She applied to a Michigan program started this year to provide free college tuition to people who served in essential jobs during the pandemic. Credit: Erin Smoot

Erin Smoot, of Northern Michigan, was among tens of thousands who applied for the Futures for Frontliners program. Smoot left college nearly two decades ago when she could no longer afford it and has worked in retail ever since. Last spring, when a maskless customer where she worked became irate and yelled at her from behind a plastic divider, Smoot had a moment of clarity: She wanted to act, right away, on her long-held desire to return to school for a career change.

Accepted into the Futures for Frontliners program, she planned to enroll at Northwestern Michigan College for a degree in freshwater studies, with the goal of opening an organic farm, and to keep her job at Walmart while attending school, to pay her bills and maintain benefits for herself and her husband, who has a disability.

Going forward, Deming, of Harvard, said he’d like to see a big federal investment in workforce development over the long term, with a focus on community colleges and other institutions he believes are best equipped to work with local industry to prepare students for in-demand careers. In the Great Recession, the government increased the size of Pell grants to help Americans afford training, but did little to help community colleges out of the financial pinch they were facing because of falling state revenue, which forced those institutions to cut programs and seats. That meant that many students who wanted to retrain instead took their federal dollars to for-profit schools that have a poor record of graduating students and helping them into well-paying jobs, he said.

Even with increased investment, community colleges and workforce groups may face challenges in providing people the right skills, given the rapid pace of technological change and the opacity of what businesses are seeking, said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor and a co-head of the university’s Managing the Future of Work project.

“What I would worry most about is how to help the longer-term unemployed, who basically haven’t been working since the pandemic started. How do we help them get back on their feet?”

David Deming, professor of public policy, Harvard University, and faculty director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy

The good news is that even before the pandemic, some corporations had begun to realize that they needed to take a more active role in training workers and sharing information about sought-after skills, Fuller said. Efforts like the Open Skills Network, a collaboration among employers, education groups and technology providers, could help bridge the gap between how institutions are training workers and what businesses need, he said. The network, whose members include the online Western Governors University and Walmart, seeks to advance a skills-based system of education and hiring, so that people in search of workforce retraining have a better understanding of the specific skills companies are looking for and how to acquire them.

“One of the things that contributes a lot to the failure of our skills system is there just isn’t good information flow,” said Fuller.

In Montana, the university system has been trying to make education more responsive to the needs of employers. About three years ago, the system analyzed data from the state education and revenue departments to determine which educational pathways were boosting people into well-paying jobs and which weren’t. The state has used that information to invest more resources in certain college programs and consolidate others, said Joseph Thiel, director of academic policy and research with the Montana University System.

An explosion in demand for workers with cybersecurity skills prompted the university system to add new classes and course tracks for students in certificate, associate and bachelor’s programs to obtain relevant experience, for example. And when the university system learned it wasn’t churning out enough computer science and information technology graduates for the well-paying jobs available in the state, it began to tweak its bachelor’s programs in those fields, by encouraging greater collaboration between faculty and employers among other changes, Thiel said.

“Job seekers are hunkering down. They are frightened, they don’t have day care, they are hoping their unemployment will last them through this weird recession we’re in.”

Kevin Holt, director of the Ohio Means Jobs center in Cincinnati

In the coming months and years, colleges, workforce boards and job groups will need to continually reassess how the pandemic has transformed career opportunities and the way people work, experts say. While it’s impossible to predict the jobs of the future, a few things are clear now. One is the pervasive need for basic digital skills, something workers who have spent years in retail may lack.

Lone Star College’s Head said she’s seen how having digital skills can make a big difference in an individual’s employability. “We are all our own IT experts now,” she said.

And while the health care industry has taken a beating during the pandemic,  many places around the country still have a shortage of nurses and other medical professionals. For that reason, Demetria Williams, of Cleveland, is using this moment to retrain as a nurse. Williams had been working as a school bus driver when she was laid off in March.

Now she’s enrolled in a licensed practical nursing (LPN) program at a local school, with financial help from the county’s one-stop jobs group. “Where I live, you could go anywhere, nursing home, anywhere, and get a job as an LPN,” she said. “So I’m not worried about it.”

Shareef, the worker in Cincinnati, is glad to have traded the patter of customers for programming languages and a job he can do from the safety of his apartment. When he enrolled at Kable Academy, which teaches coding, cybersecurity and other tech skills, he worried that web development would demand math skills he’d long since forgotten. He was relieved to find that wasn’t the case.

“It’s not this impossibly hard thing that only a super genius can learn how to do,” he said. “It’s almost like puzzle solving, more than anything.”

Shareef said he’s also grateful that he could retrain without taking on debt. “The barrier to college, financially, is completely overwhelming,” he said. “As soon as I got the opportunity to get an education for free, I devoted everything to it.”

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