The COVID-19 health crisis has spawned another devastating crisis as the economy was suddenly and dramatically shut down and millions of Americans lost their jobs and livelihoods. Despite extended and expanded unemployment benefits, delays in receiving benefits, disqualifying factors such as immigration status, and reductions in earnings have led to desperate conditions for countless Americans, including food insecurity, risk of eviction and homelessness, and long-term losses in economic security. While unemployment is now rippling through nearly all sectors of the economy, low-income workers are particularly vulnerable and losing ground fast. Without an economic safety net in their bank accounts, it is particularly dangerous for low-income workers to lose even one paycheck, let alone a sole source of income. According to a recent report by the Boston Indicators project of The Boston Foundation, approximately 1 million Massachusetts workers, mostly low-income workers, are in high-risk industries and are particularly vulnerable to layoffs, long-term unemployment, and extreme economic insecurity.
What is the role of workforce development during the health crisis and as the crisis begins to diminish? After nearly ten years of a very robust economy and a hyper tight job market, workforce development practitioners will need to pivot again. This essay considers three critical elements of a workforce strategy for the current crisis and four elements of workforce strategy for the near-term future.
What Should We Be Doing Now?
- Getting income and emergency provisions into our clients’ hands: Workforce development professionals typically focus most of their attention on assisting with employment and removing barriers to that goal. During this crisis, we must shift to providing emergency services and even cash assistance, as families are struggling with very basic needs.
- Helping our clients build their skills in this down time: While skill building is not a solution to high unemployment, periods of high unemployment are an important opportunity for low-income workers to build their skills, improve their English, and prepare for re-employment with better opportunities, once the recovery begins. This requires creating on-line services for both instruction and coaching, and it requires great flexibility, as clients are dealing with family responsibilities at a time when schools and child care centers are closed.
- Helping with re-employment whenever possible: Though more of our clients are losing jobs than getting jobs, there are jobs going unfilled, and it is possible to start re-employment now. Of course effective re-employment requires remote tools, such as JVS’s Talent Match Portal and it also requires flexibility, as client decision making is complicated by health and safety, childcare, and other challenges.
What should we be doing in the coming months?
Though it’s not clear what the trajectory of the COVID-19 crisis will be, we can hope that the virus will begin to ease later this spring and summer. If that is what happens, we can expect that economic recovery and re-employment will then begin in earnest. In all likelihood, the recovery will be in fits and starts, progress slowly, and unevenly, with some sectors like healthcare recovering more quickly to respond to pent-up demand, and some sectors like food service and hospitality recovering much more slowly.
- Pivoting to re-employment: In all likelihood, we will be operating in high unemployment and soft labor market conditions for months to come. As in previous recovery periods, workforce development will need to focus on re-employment and all that entails. These services will need to include preparing job seekers for their job search and successful hiring, making appropriate and effective job matches, and partnering with key employers to help them get the talent they need as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is likely employers will continue to use remote applicant tracking systems, on-line interviewing, and remote skills testing and clients will need to build their skills in these areas. And, as we pivot to re-employment, we can’t lose sight of the focus on job quality, as we help our clients attain jobs at safe workplaces with family sustaining wages.
- Creating new public models for re-employment: Our recent experience with remote technology suggests that we can deliver One Stop Career Center employment services in a very new way. Regardless of the trajectory of the economic recovery, it is very likely that in-person services will be limited for some time, and even after it is possible, we know that core One Stop Career Center services can be delivered effectively in a remote mode. Old fashioned One Stop Career Center services that require individuals to travel long and far to comply with their unemployment requirements and get re-employment services should be replaced with hybrid services that incorporate available technologies and tools.
- Creating new hybrid models of education and training: What we have learned during this period is that high-quality adult education and training services can be delivered remotely, and that clients with a wide range of education, literacy, and skill levels can participate under the right conditions, and with appropriate supports. When we are able to move back to in-person classes, we will want to create hybrid models that incorporate distance learning and coaching that can enhance in-person classes, as well as entirely remote services that can remove the barriers of limited travel time, inaccessible public transportation, and the financial burden of paying for child care and transportation to attend classes.
- Making key public policy changes: Workforce development services can only do so much for low-income workers in a recovery. Our services should be enhanced with key public policy initiatives, including:
- Invest in adult education and training to allow low-income workers to take full advantage of this down time to build their skills for higher quality jobs
- Continue expanded UI benefits so that the long-term unemployed will not fall into irreversible poverty.
- Expand SNAP and other supplemental benefits so that low-income workers can supplement their incomes and begin to build back some level of economic security.
- Continue state moves towards higher minimum wages and enact a higher federal minimum wage
- Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit so that we can help reverse the financial setbacks of the COVID-19-related economic crisis.
- Enact immigration reforms so that the millions of immigrants who pay taxes but have no access to public benefits don’t become an enormous permanent underclass.
- Ensure that workplace health and safety regulations are strengthened and enforced
- Enact legislation that moves us toward universal childcare availability
There is little doubt that the COVID-19 health crisis and related economic crisis will continue to cause great hardship for many months to come, and will, in all likelihood, exacerbate our trends toward extreme income inequality. The workforce development field, and supportive public policies will have a very important role to play to help mitigate some of these trends and provide immediate assistance and long-term opportunity for millions of Americans. Crises always create opportunities, and our opportunity to step up is now.