In a Hail Mary attempt to demonstrate to my kids that you don’t have to be a jerk to be President of the United States, last week we turned off CNN to watch something different. No, it wasn’t The West Wing or even a highlight reel of the Obama years – it’s also true that you don’t have to be smug to be President – but rather the early 1990s Ivan Reitman comedy Dave. If you haven’t seen Dave, the film centers around the owner of a small staffing company – Dave Kovic – who happens to be a dead ringer for President Bill Mitchell (both Kevin Kline). When the President has a stroke in flagrante delicto (he’s a jerk, too), the President’s top aides convince Dave to pose as the President to avoid losing power. In time, Dave becomes more popular than President Mitchell ever was, falls in love with the First Lady (Ellen Mitchell, played by Sigourney Weaver), and launches a radical new program “to try to find a decent job for every American who wants one.”
Ellen: You find people jobs?
Dave: Yeah. Is that funny?
Ellen: It’s just more than anyone else does around here.
With 38M Americans out of work, in lieu of a President whose understanding of the labor market is limited to employing members of his immediate family, we could do worse than to have a President who understands how to help people get jobs. As Dawn Graham recently pointed out in Forbes, when you work in staffing or recruiting, you learn a lot about how jobs are created and filled (or – as is increasingly the case – not filled). Nevertheless, our steep descent to historic unemployment begs the question of whether America can still handle big challenges, regardless of who’s in charge.
President Trump loves to brag that America is #1 in so many things; that list now includes mishandling disease. It was clear back in March what needed to happen: a comprehensive national strategy for testing, contact tracing, and isolating. If the federal government had led, state governments would have gotten in line. Other countries executing on testing, tracing, and isolating are already opening schools and are far ahead of America in going back to work. But the immense amount of work required wasn’t a good fit for a President who’s not so good with details, or good at recruiting and hiring competent managers who are good with details. The CDC has retrained 500 new contact tracers to date, which would be sufficient if this was Monaco. We’ve even failed to support our most vulnerable population: seniors in nursing homes. When asked whether we’re testing and tracing at nursing homes, the head of the CDC told Congress last week: “I’m pretty confident it’s operational, but I need to double check just to make sure.”
In the absence of a coordinated national effort, 50 states are building a crazy quilt of testing and tracing infrastructure – a grand experiment that might just produce a few good solutions were it not for the absurd mismatch between level of resources and scope of problem, and the inconvenient fact that millions of Americans cross state lines every day. Devolving testing and tracing to the states is a doomed experiment; there’s a reason fighting the Great Depression or World War II wasn’t left to the states. The Washington Post has already declared the federal government’s testing and tracing abdication to be “Trump’s Greatest Failure of the Pandemic.”
Why can’t the country that put a man on the moon attempt what virtually every other developed country in the world has undertaken? Because in the intervening 50 years, a strand of conservatism seeded by opposition to FDR’s New Deal, and – understandably – to the collectivist ideologies responsible for the worst atrocities of the 20th century, argued that the federal government is the problem, not the solution, and then – to align culturally with voters from lower socioeconomic groups – that the principal characteristic of the federal government is condescension (by the elite, for the elite) or a conspiracy of elites. This strand has found its full, final, fatal flower in the unholy alliance of Fox News and our current President and led to bizarre views that are held nowhere else in the world (e.g., 23% of Americans say they won’t get a Covid-19 vaccine). As Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former (and more competent) director of the CDC noted, “we’re reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure. And I think it’s going to end badly.”
But to paraphrase Churchill, national public programs are the worst solution to national public problems, except for all the others. If we can’t get our act together on a federal solution to the pandemic, even if our next President is a non-jerk like Dave Kovic or Joe Biden, what hope is there for federal solutions for finding jobs for millions of newly unemployed Americans in an economy where even our healthiest companies have stopped or slowed hiring? And, if reopening ends badly, as Dr. Frieden predicts, the unemployment crisis will be further exacerbated and prolonged.
Even before Covid, the increasingly square peg – round hole relationship between millions of available workers and millions of open jobs was one of the biggest challenges facing our country. Driven by the digital revolution, the skills gap had led to 45% underemployment among new and recent college graduates, over 7M unfilled jobs, and a broadly shared sense that pathways to good jobs in the most dynamic sectors of the economy were narrow or nonexistent and that the American dream was at risk as never before.
So we already needed to rethink pathways to work. And since the vast majority of four-year colleges and universities long ago absolved themselves of the responsibility of preparing graduates for good jobs, few have actively participated in the ongoing conversation among community colleges, workforce boards, innovative new employer-centric models, and state governments. But just as the pandemic won’t be stopped at the state level, record unemployment will require a federal response; even when the pandemic is stopped, consumer and business behavior won’t snap back to pre-Covid form and millions of Americans who made a living in retail, food service, hospitality, travel, and other industries will be in desperate need of new options.
Here’s a top 10 list of undoubtedly hard things the federal government might undertake, but that still stop well short of Dave’s dreamy jobs program or contemporary quasi-fictional equivalents.
1) Launch HealthCorps
Assist unemployed new graduates (and recent graduates – victims of last-in, first-out at many employers that have battened down the hatches) with first jobs in healthcare. Local departments of public health are scrambling for resources. Even if the current Administration is ideologically opposed to national contact tracing, it could provide funding for state HealthCorps. A side benefit would be a novel, scaled pathway to healthcare careers (perhaps incorporating innovative upskilling programs), which we desperately need.
2) Make Workforce Boards Relevant
Federal spending on workforce development through the Workforce Opportunity Investment Act (WIOA) is only about $1 billion. WIOA funds state and local workforce development or investment boards (WIBs) that operate “one stop” programs to help job seekers find jobs. While they are ostensibly charged with human capital development and maintain laundry lists of training programs operated by colleges and non-profits, WIBs are measured based on speed-to-placement, not on value added. As a result, workforce boards find themselves in a vicious circle of attracting only low skill workers, and employers listing the lowest skill positions. Unless things change quickly, few newly unemployed workers will find good jobs through WIBs. WIBs must be funded not based on legacy WIOA allocations, but rather on whether they’re succeeding at putting Americans into good jobs (defined as $50k+ annually, full-time employee, with multiple career paths). WIBs that can’t do this should be torn down and replaced with something new.
3) Facilitate Shift to Skills-based Hiring
Clear the path for employers to utilize powerful new assessments in the hiring process – and supplant traditional degree- and pedigree-based hiring – by shifting the burden to the EEOC to prove adverse impact in the event employers replace degree requirements in job descriptions with skills assessments. (Right now, the burden is on employers to prove no adverse impact if they choose to use assessments – a burden few employers are willing to assume.)
4) Support Digital Credentialing
Millions of newly displaced workers will have a very hard time recognizing and demonstrating their skills to employers in a world where the point of connection is where PDF resumes meet applicant tracking systems. Digital skills-based credentials have the potential to cut through the clutter and put more good candidates into good jobs. To date, there has been no federal support or incentives for digital credentials. It’s now time for every Department of Education and Labor program to prioritize and integrate digital credentialing.
5) Focus Community Colleges on Jobs
For decades, community colleges have received conflicting signals from their state and federal sources of funding: offer short programs that lead directly to good jobs, but also provide open enrollment pathways to bachelor’s degrees. The first signal is employer- and employment-centric. The second is academic. But academic programs at community colleges are a waystation, not a destination. Even if students complete them—fewer than 30% do, and fewer than 20% of underrepresented minorities—academic associate’s degrees (distinct from programs like nursing) are rarely valued by employers. It’s time to send a clear signal to community colleges: offer programs that lead directly to good jobs in growing sectors of the local economy. This means associate degrees that lead to licensure (like nursing), but predominantly industry certifications, certificates, and last-mile training driven by employer needs.
6) Short-term Pell for Employer/Industry Partnerships
Pell Grants are currently limited to programs that are the equivalent of two-thirds of an academic year (600 clock hours/16 credit hours). The Republican proposal to expand Pell eligibility to “high-quality, short-term programs that provide students with a credential, certification, or license in a high demand field” has run up against Democratic suspicion of unscrupulous for-profit providers. Common ground can be found by restricting funding to training programs offered in conjunction with a qualified employer or industry group. For example, Santa Monica College offers a cloud computing certificate program in partnership with Amazon World Services. If a for-profit provider can convince Amazon or a comparable credible industry partner, Pell should follow.
7) Zero-based Licensure
Last time I noted that many non-selective colleges and universities will need to adopt zero-based budgeting to meet fiscal challenges. States must do the same with occupation licensing requirements and put the burden firmly on industry associations to justify continued labor market friction. (Why do 21 states require a license in order to work as a travel guide?) There’s also a role for the federal government given the incredible inconsistency of state licensure; of 1,100 licensed occupations, fewer than 60 are regulated in all 50 states.
8) Solve for Apprenticeships
Expanding apprenticeships beyond traditional blue collar building and industrial trades is a worthy goal. But nothing any Administration has attempted to date addresses the fundamental reasons why employers in tech, professional services, and healthcare don’t launch apprenticeship program. They are: (1) Cost of training; (2) Employers are expected to hire apprentices from the start of training; and (3) unlike the UK, America doesn’t incentivize intermediaries to organize apprenticeship programs for employers. New models that address all three should be promoted and supported.
9) Shifting Funding from Education to Placement
America’s colleges and universities continue to capture the lion’s share of non-employer spending on human capital development beyond high school to the tune of over $500B annually. Federal and state spending on colleges and universities amount to well over $200B. Public spending on all other forms of human capital development is but a fraction of this amount. But funding formal education doesn’t automatically put Americans in jobs. As it’s probably about 10x easier to upskill someone than to convince an employer to hire unproven talent (particularly in a Covid economy when the risk of hiring now and for the foreseeable future remains high), and because it’s essential to get candidates into jobs now before temporarily unemployed become permanently unemployed, we must begin spending money on placement. Employers should be incentivized to hire by subsidizing wages for a trial period once candidates are retained. And public, non-profit, and private sector intermediaries with the potential to absorb risk from candidates and employers by serving as the employer of record for a trial period (during which candidates are upskilled, matched, and tried by the ultimate employer) should be amply rewarded for achieving a publicly beneficial outcome. If we are serious about putting millions back to work, we should spend on placement. And if spending isn’t increased, governments would do well to shift a material amount of funding from education to placement.
10) But Still Make Colleges and Universities Help by:
a) Establishing a Single Student Unit Record
Even though the federal government hands out hundreds of billions of dollars a year to colleges and universities, it doesn’t insist on a single student unit record system that we need to actually track outcomes and return on investment. In fact, per the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, such federal tracking is illegal. (I sense a pattern…) Fortunately, pragmatic Republicans like HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander have already changed their minds.
b) Reforming Work-Study
Change the $1.1B federal work study (FWS) program to encourage, not discourage private sector employment. Currently, the program provides higher wage subsidies for placing students in on-campus custodial or food service positions (hopefully) unrelated to career goals. Colleges and universities that want FWS dollars should be required to do the hard work of engaging local employers.
c) Integrating Real Work Into Coursework
With 61% of full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees asking for at least three years of experience, and the crashing and burning of youth summer internships and employment that were already near an all-time low, it’s more important than ever that students gain work experience as they study. Given the availability of new marketplaces that make it relatively straightforward for faculty to integrate projects from real employers into coursework, the Department of Education should make real work mandatory for a certain percentage of credit hours.
d) Turning Degree Programs Upside-Down Require Title IV-eligible institutions to restructure degree programs by ensuring students achieve an industry-recognized credential in the first year. This turns degree programs “upside-down,” from general education first to certification or certificate first. BYU-Idaho has shown what’s possible with BYU-Pathway Worldwide: online bachelor’s degrees that begin with a five-course certificate program so students begin building marketable skills immediately. After the first certificate, students complete a second certificate and associate’s degree in year two. In years three and four, students complete a third certificate plus general education courses.
e) Tracking Employment Outcomes
It’s a crime that colleges and universities don’t know much more than that, say, 80% of last year’s graduates were employed or in graduate school within six months; such a statistic says nothing about whether graduates are in good jobs and whether they can afford to make student loan payments. In the absence of a student unit record mapped to IRS data, the Department of Education should put the onus on institutions to capture accurate employment information of the students whose money they’ve taken. The best idea for doing this is via income share agreements (ISAs), which require students to report income for several years in order to remain in compliance. Whether colleges and universities use ISAs as a meaningful component of financial aid, or whether the ISAs are trivial or zero-cost, students are required to submit W-2s or income tax filings to their alma mater to avoid being on the hook for a penalty. The result could be real tracking and reporting of employment outcomes at each Title IV institution broken out by program and demographic group i.e., probably useful for students as they make enrollment decisions.
f) Helping to Launch HealthCorps
The Department of Education should immediately require every Title IV-eligible institution teaching medicine or public health to offer free contact tracing programs in collaboration with city/county public health departments. The University of Houston, and community colleges near Pittsburgh and Chicago are leading the way. If colleges and universities want to continue to receive federal funding, it should be mandatory.
I’m reminded of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. For 40 years, America has been the grasshopper. It’s great to be the grasshopper during good times, but Good Time Charlie doesn’t do as well when winter comes or when there are shifts that require a change in the rules of the road. Covid-19 is one, digital technology is another. Nothing demonstrates just how much has been changed by the latter than how the most fortunate Americans have been living and continuing to work over the past two months. Digital technology has transformed the nature of good jobs, and – crucially – the process of finding and landing one.
Like the proverbial grasshopper, the current Administration – as The Lancet wrote in an editorial last week – “is obsessed with magic bullets – vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear. But only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end.” The magic bullet equivalent to putting millions of Americans back to work is pouring billions of additional dollars into existing higher education and workforce training programs. As it would support the livelihoods of millions of Americans already working in higher education and workforce development, it’s not apocalyptically awful. But it’s unlikely to make a lick of difference in the lives of millions of newly unemployed Americans the incremental spending is supposed to help.
Making a difference will require Democrats to challenge orthodoxies, legacy programs, and funding structures and – critically – Republicans to believe in public solutions to public problems. As they face their respective partisan demons, both sides should take inspiration from Dave Kovic: “if you’ve ever seen the look one someone’s face the day they get a job… they look like they could fly. And unless we start tapping into that kind of spirit again, there’s no way we’re gonna fix anything in this country.”
America remains #1 at finding magic bullets. But even if we find one for Covid-19, there won’t be a magic bullet for putting America back to work. But it’s worth our leaders’ time, energy, and – especially – attention to detail. Because the unemployment crisis of the early 2020s makes Dave’s unemployment of the early 1990s look like an Ivan Reitman comedy.