Regulatory Opportunities for Workforce Development in the United States

In this week’s Saturday seminar, we collect recent scholarship on American workforce development.

Currently, job openings outnumber workers in the United States with only 0.76 workers for each opening, warns the American Chamber of Commerce. This is a dramatic decrease from the 20 years before the COVID-19 pandemic, when the United States averaged 2.5 workers available per job opening. Recovery will require orchestrated workforce development efforts.

Experts say the labor effects of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t end when it disrupted employment, so that 22 million jobs were lost in two months. Even when jobs have returned, the pandemic has altered industries in ways that have resulted in a massive misalignment between worker skills and job openings.

Other researchers point out that the labor market problem does not result from a lack of skilled workers, but from a shortage of good jobs. Due to systemic barriers, such as workers having less ability to influence work outcomes, many skilled workers lack access to well-paying jobs. Equity and growing inequality are major concerns as the shortage of good jobs and the skills gap disproportionately hurt low-wage workers.

Automation also threatens to widen the skills gap – executives estimate that about seven million American workers will need to retrain to keep their jobs after automation hits their industry.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) governs workforce development and the state’s implementation of workforce development efforts. WIOA provides funds for educational and technical training to states whose governors submit a plan influenced by local workforce development councils required by law. Through the state’s implementation of the WIOA and related state agency regulations, the United States maintains a patchwork of workforce development efforts.

In this week’s Saturday seminar, we collect recent scholarship on the rules and strategies of workforce development to build a thriving American economy with good jobs for all.

  • When trying to design a cohesive workforce development program, officials face challenges in reconciling the various federal laws that govern K-12 education, higher education, and the workforce. -work. In an article for the Center for American Progress, Laura Jimenez of the US Department of Education and Livia Lam of the Ford Foundation recommend focusing federal programs on job quality. Jimenez and Lam suggest developing a common set of rules for defining quality and holding programs accountable for providing an acceptable quality of education and workforce development opportunities. In addition, they say, federal agencies should provide guidance to local programs on how to measure and work to achieve satisfactory job quality results.
  • Well-paying jobs for workers without a bachelor’s degree have mostly disappeared, as COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities between workers with and without post-secondary education, Georgetown University’s Harry J. Holzer says in a policy proposal for The Hamilton Project. To help workers develop skills to get well-paying jobs, Holzer urges lawmakers to strengthen regulations on “paying jobs.” The Obama administration developed these rules to ensure that schools receiving federal funding provide meaningful job training to students. Holzer recommends updating paid employment regulations to require programs to measure outcomes, such as subsequent earnings or successful debt repayment, to hold colleges accountable.
  • How can policy makers reinvent approaches to adult and workforce education? In a test in Adult Literacy, Elizabeth A. Roumell of Texas A&M University argues that the shift to digital learning, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, is calling on regulators to make workforce training policies more responsive to learner needs adults. Roumell identifies the need to ensure that learners have adequate and productive learning conditions that promote well-being and community participation. To do this, Roumell encourages creative partnerships between local, state, and federal policymakers and workforce organizations to meet the “real, on-the-ground, and contextual needs of adult learners.”
  • The federal government must seek innovative solutions at the post-secondary level to better adapt to the educational challenges posed by the pandemic, say Richard Arum of the University of California, Irvine and Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University in a policy proposal for the Hamilton project. Arum and Stevens suggest two initiatives for the federal government to consider. First, they advocate that federal authorities provide apprenticeship opportunity credits to unemployed workers who will work to provide workforce training through a blended learning structure. Second, Arum and Stevens suggest that the government establish a knowledge sharing network between federal agencies and US post-secondary institutions to improve adult learning policies. They recommend that the government adopt these initiatives together as a “joint venture”, as they both fill the gap in learning opportunities during a global pandemic.
  • In a recent article, two researchers identify conflicting regulations as a barrier to coordinated workforce development efforts. Jenna E. Myers of the Center for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto and Katherine C. Kellogg of the MIT Sloan School of Management explain that the messy political landscapes resulting from years of different attempts to improve the development of the hand -work make effective collaboration difficult. They suggest that states with centralized workforce development practices address these conflicting regulations through “guided experimentation,” which involves establishing a framework for action that local partners can enforce. In Tennessee, state actors have changed state agency regulations to align an inconsistent patchwork of rules related to career and technical education. The state succeeded because it could rely on state actors in its centralized structure to explain changes to affected parties when changing regulations adjusted jurisdictional lines.
  • If job quality is to be at the center of workforce development efforts, how can regulators support these efforts? In a recent article, Dani Rodrik and Stefanie Stantcheva of Harvard University advocate a shift in regulators’ strategy from top-down reactions to a collaborative and iterative approach to defining, creating and measuring “good jobs”. In the traditional model, regulators set rigid standards and react to behavior, but with the new “good jobs” approach, standards would be more flexible and responsive to changing needs. Rodrik and Stantcheva explain that other regulated areas such as food safety, civil aviation and the promotion of new technologies have already implemented this type of iterative process.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the type of content that would be delivered in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Every week, Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then summarizes recent research and academic writing on that topic.

Michael A. Bynum