What Congress Can Do to Prepare for the Future of Work

PUBLISHED Feb. 7, 2019

By Mary Gardner Clagett

The future of work phenomenon is the result of fast-paced changes in technology, artificial intelligence, robotics, fluctuations in the way we perform work, and other factors. Researchers who have studied it agree that these innovations will create economic growth and net new jobs, but only for economies that are prepared for the changes ahead and for workers who have the right skills. If the predictions are correct, the United States and its education and workforce development systems are not prepared for this upheaval.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 1.37 million U.S. workers will be displaced from their jobs in the next decade due to changes in skill requirements. The silver lining is that these workers can prepare for new roles—and with higher wages—if provided with reskilling either by employers or in public education and training programs.  While this doesn’t come cheap—the WEF estimates that retraining will cost about $34 billion (or $24,800 per worker)—the return on investment for helping workers gain skills needed for new roles is a positive investment for both employers and for government.

We have an untapped workforce that can play a significant role in filling vacant and future jobs, if provided with the right education, skills, and supports.

We are already seeing the impact that changing talent requirements are having as they contribute to the skills gap that U.S. employers are experiencing.  While employers maintain they cannot find skilled workers for millions of unfilled jobs, there are 6 million Americans who are unemployed and 4.8 million employees who work part time even though they would like full-time work.  And over 65 million U.S. workers are in jobs with a median wage of $15 an hour or less—not enough to support a family of four in most parts of the country.

We have an untapped workforce that can play a significant role in filling these vacant and future jobs, if provided with the right education, skills, and supports.  It is essential that we stand ready to provide these individuals, as well as current workers, with the skilling and transition assistance that will be needed to fill these new roles and careers.

To do this, JFF urges policymakers to consider the following policy ideas during this congressional session that we believe are critical to addressing the needs of the U.S. workforce as we prepare for the future of work.

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  • Provide adequate funds for workforce education and development systems. Make funding for workforce development and related services a priority. Also, make sure sufficient funding is provided to pay for the education, training, support, and transition services that will be needed for current and future workers. Legislators should also consider ways to leverage and align traditional and nontraditional funding sources. 

  • Transform our nation’s workforce development system with enhanced career navigation and training offerings that would be available both in-person and online. These offerings should provide career information, counseling, and skills assessments; skill matching for hiring and to identify skills gaps; credit for prior learning and training targeted to skills gaps; and assistance in job searches and transitions.
  • Restructure postsecondary education and training delivery systems, increasing system flexibility and relevance. Postsecondary systems should measure students’ success based on the attainment of competencies and credentials, rather than seat time and course completion; and encourage acceleration strategies for credential attainment. 
  • Establish regional industry partnerships and sector-focused career pathways that lead to valued credentials and family-supporting careers in high demand industries.
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  • Improve transition strategies for workers whose jobs are changing or being eliminated. This means devising plans that help accelerate and smooth transitions between jobs and that assist workers in upskilling for new roles and responsibilities. These plans should also include innovations such as wage insurance, work sharing, and evidence-based reemployment assistance strategies. 
  • Reform anti-poverty programs to ensure that public assistance recipients can also identify career goals and pursue the skills and credentials needed for family-supporting careers (with funding that follows recipients for services they receive through a transformed career navigation and training system).
  • Establish state innovation grants that offer incentives for changing postsecondary education and workforce development systems to focus on lifelong learning and evidence-based strategies. 
  • Rethink federal financial aid. Relax restrictions in the Higher Education Act to allow federal financial aid to pay for more innovative and flexible education models. These include models focused on competencies and short-term industry credentials in combination with strong quality control measures. 

If we are going to take advantage of the economic wave that’s headed our way, education and workforce systems must be adequately funded. And just as important, these systems must be more agile and responsive to the changing skill requirements of the future economy.  

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