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Education and Training Will Be Crucial for the Recovery

The pandemic has blighted the career prospects of millions of Americans — but even after this crisis has passed, harnessing the country’s potential will be a formidable challenge. To build a strong and lasting recovery, with a thriving, well-paid workforce, the U.S. will have to get a lot better at equipping people with the skills the economy needs.

The task starts with K-12 education, because that’s where inequality and lack of opportunity begin. If the schools fail, no later interventions can make up the difference. As the country lays this stronger foundation, a comprehensive workforce agenda should boost investments in career and technical education, help workers get training, and build partnerships between educational providers and employers. Immigration reform also has a role, because foreigners with talent and ambition can help revitalize the economy.

Too many of America’s schools are falling short, especially when it comes to students from low-income backgrounds. Biden’s team needs to press for higher standards and more innovation. One way is to support high-quality public charter schools. Another is to develop career-focused technical high schools. The U.S. needs to expand access to classes in computer science and digital literacy, and hire more teachers to fill shortages in underserved communities and STEM subjects. States will take the lead, but Washington should encourage reform and reward those that make the effort.

Teachers’ unions are likely to resist parts of this agenda and Biden, an ally of organized labor, is at risk of being swayed. It’s encouraging that he chose Miguel Cardona, a moderate and not a union leader, to run his Department of Education, but the new president will need to stand firm.

Broadening economic opportunity is a long-term job; the skills shortage is here and now. Prior to the pandemic, job vacancies in the U.S. had reached record highs, with roughly 7 million jobs unfilled. Close to 70% of employers reported difficulty filling key positions. This reflected, in part, a healthy labor market, but also the shortage of workers with requisite skills — not just software programmers and cybersecurity specialists, but also electricians, welders and mechanics.

Bridging the skills gap is a better way to spend federal dollars than wiping out $10,000 in federal student-loan debt, as Biden has proposed, which would disproportionately benefit affluent Americans and do nothing for graduates who avoided debt by working their way through college. Increase funding for two-year schools to provide training for jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree but are nonetheless in high demand. Expand financial aid for low-income students, adult learners and incarcerated Americans. Press for legislation to improve the government’s ability to track and publicize program-level data on whether students end up getting good jobs.

And upgrade the federal government’s own employment and training programs. Currently, there are 43 — many of them redundant. They should be merged, streamlined and made more effective, using incentives to promote collaboration among educational providers, state and local governments and private industry. Sector-based training programs, in which workers obtain skills and credentials geared toward local employment, have been proven to work. Biden should build on the Trump administration’s push to expand apprenticeships, which let workers make a living as they learn new trades. Congress should offer more generous tax credits for small and medium-sized businesses that provide training to low-skilled employees.

Preparing all Americans to thrive in an age of automation will take time — which is why policy makers should make it easier for foreigners with skills to work and settle in the U.S. Biden should immediately rescind Trump’s executive order freezing green cards and restricting visas for both high-skilled and seasonal workers. He should then turn to comprehensive immigration reform. Its main goals: increase skilled immigration, provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors, strengthen border security, and reform the broken asylum system.

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” goes the cliché. In this case, it’s apt. By investing in America’s workers and bringing in new ones with skills in demand, the administration can ensure a faster U.S. recovery from the pandemic. That, together with a sustained focus on better educating the country’s children, can enable the country to keep its promise of opportunity for all.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg Opinion’s editorials: David Shipley at .

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