The Biden skills agenda: It needs work

By: Brent Orrell and Mason M. Bishop

Key Points

  • The incoming Joe Biden administration has three workforce pillars, none of which addresses more near-term COVID-19 recovery steps or funds to support state and local workforce and training systems.
  • Further longer-term federal support to state and local workforce systems should enhance flexibilities for states to better target assistance and reduce mandates that hamstring innovative approaches to helping businesses and workers.
  • Any near or long-term federal support to the workforce systems must focus on providing resources and supports to workers and families for upskilling and accelerated training options that mitigate and reduce unemployment.

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With the Joe Biden administration beginning its formal transition, it is time to start thinking about the president-elect’s plans to rebuild the economy and reemploy millions of unemployed workers. His “Build Back Better” campaign, among other things, focuses on policy goals such as creating jobs in public health and the green and social-care sectors.1

Although campaign documents are never long on detail, the Biden proposals fall short of the type of federal response needed in the immediate term to confront the enormous challenges facing our economy. Unequal and inconsistent responses to the pandemic at the state and local levels, a growing number of permanent layoffs resulting from the pandemic, and ongoing structural changes to industries, jobs, and skill needs all mean the nation will require a fundamentally different approach to education, training, and job finding. This time, it really is different.

This report briefly examines some of the key elements President-elect Biden has articulated as part of his human capital development strategy. We look first at his public health job corps and the green and social-care sector initiatives and some of the systemic and market-focused factors these programs face.

We then turn to the immediate challenges workers and employers will likely face in fully restoring the nation’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and policy responses that disproportionally affected entry-level, low-income, and service-sector workers. In some industries, such as hospitality and entertainment, implementing COVID-19-safe work practices are dramatically changing jobs and skill needs, requiring changes to training programs.

Setting aside the merits of many of President-elect Biden’s employment, training, and job-creation plans, fundamentally reforming the federally funded employment and job-training system unquestionably remains a foundational necessity to ensure workers, rather than the federal, state, and local systems that are intended to support them, are established as our top priority. These changes will require bipartisan support and work and an understanding that our nation and economy need a flexible, decentralized approach that recognizes variation in needs among and within states.

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  1. Biden-Harris Transition, “Economic Recovery: The Biden-Harris Jobs and Economic Recovery Plan for Working Families,”