House explores the future of work at the close of the decade

By January 6, 2020

Just before Congress left for the holidays, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment held a hearing examining ways to prepare for the future of work. This has become a hot topic this year, particularly as presidential candidate Andrew Yang has incorporated it into his platform and elevated it onto the national debate stage. The issue highlights the societal and economic changes that are underway due to the development of new technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. These technologies will cause major shifts in the types of tasks performed and skills required in our occupations, as well as the creation of a host of new employment opportunities. However, with this growth, there are concerns that low- and medium-skilled workers could be displaced and left behind. The federal government has a long history of administering job training and reskilling programs for displaced workers but these new technologies present unique challenges.

We asked our scientific community to submit questions and important topics that should be discussed and we provided them as an online resource for Members of the Committee before the hearing. The insightful, data-driven submissions we received included questions about lifelong learning, the expansion of apprenticeships, the decline in funding for workforce development programs, the impact of automation on the workforce, and the roles of the public and private sector in helping workers adapt to the future of work. All of these topics were touched upon during the hearing. Agreement between Members of the Committee and witnesses was most apparent on how the current patchwork of federally-supported workforce development programs are not enough, and that their funding should be increased.

Chairwoman Susan Davis (D, CA-53) opened the hearing by critiquing the lack of federal investment in U.S. workers. She emphasized how the U.S. government spends only 0.1% of its budget on workforce development, while other industrialized nations spend an average of six times more. This can leave valuable workforce programs strapped for cash and harm workers looking for help in landing their next job. In fact, displaced workers are expected to navigate the confusing network of federal programs on their own, needlessly extending their search for assistance and a new job. Chairwoman Davis noted that reskilling alone will be insufficient to prevent worker displacement and that government programs should prioritize lifelong learning.

Ranking Member Lloyd Smucker (R, PA-11) added in his opening statement that the Taskforce on Apprenticeship Expansion was created to reduce the red tape and establish new apprenticeship programs. To understand the complexity of the federal training program landscape, the Government Accountability Office performed a study in 2009 and found that the federal government administers 47 different job training programs in nine different agencies. Many of the current retraining programs target specific categories of workers, such as those who have been laid off as jobs moved overseas or those who are underqualified, instead of targeting the training needs for specific types of work. However, studies like the Taskforce on Apprenticeship Expansion’s 2018 report have found that training and apprenticeship programs focused on developing the skills that local businesses need to succeed are often more effective than their current federal counterparts.

The statement that triggered one of the more compelling exchanges during the hearing came from former Acting Secretary of Labor, Seth Harris. He insisted that the US does not suffer from an inability to find workers with the right skills, often called the “skills gap.” If there was an actual gap between workers’ abilities and the skills needed to succeed in the workforce, wages would dramatically increase for workers with the right skills and employers would spend more money on training their employees to learn those skills. This has not happened. He explained that the skills gap argument blames workers for not knowing what skills would be in demand when choosing an education, instead of acknowledging a systemic disconnect between degree and certification processes and employers’ needs, the lack of apprenticeships, and reduced funding for on-the-job training.

When Representative Mark Takano (D, CA-41) asked what Congress can do to help, Mr. Harris advocated for more transparency in the credentialing system and stronger Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) programs to help people get the right skills to succeed in the workforce. There are thousands of programs that claim to help workers earn certifications in sought-after skills; however, there is little data on which programs are actually effective. More transparency into the success rates of these programs would allow workers to enroll in the best programs for their career plans. The Department of Labor’s TAACCCT program began in 2011 and awards grants to community colleges to improve their curricula “to help adults learn skills that lead to family-sustaining jobs.”

The creation of learning savings accounts for workers was also the subject of vigorous discussion. James Paretti, Treasurer for the Emma Coalition, emphasized that the biggest challenge will be for both employers and employees to understand that some displacement is inevitable and workers must be prepared. Stockpiling funds is one way that workers could automatically save for their future education and weather employment challenges. A variety of learning savings account models have been proposed, with workers, employers, and the government all having the option to contribute funds at assorted levels, similar to the contributions made to retirement accounts.

This hearing covered a lot of ground, but Members have not completed their fact-finding into the future of work. Chairwoman Davis announced that her Committee will be holding another hearing about this critical issue. As Congress prepares to dig deeper into the future of work, we encourage you to email any data-driven questions or workforce topics that should be discussed to [email protected].