One year ago I wrote about “Workforce Development in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond”. I can honestly say that I did not expect that a full year later we’d still be struggling with the pandemic, the recession it spawned, and all of the impacts of both. Of course, we are seeing hopeful signs as more of us get vaccinated, infection and hospitalization rates continue to decline, and economic and job growth begin to improve. But we are certainly not out of the woods yet.
With more than 300,000 unemployed individuals in Massachusetts, many having worked in industries that will be very slow to recover, we have an enormous task in front of us, to get unemployed Massachusetts workers back to work and earning enough to have a secure and hopeful future.
Much of what I argued for a year ago remains true today. We need to pivot to re-employment strategies very quickly – we need to support our career centers with increased career navigation resources and current technologies, we need to utilize what we’ve learned over the past year and apply new models of hybrid education and training, and we need to support public policies that provide income and other supports for the working poor.
As the course of the COVID-19 recession and recovery has become a bit clearer, several other strategies will need to be put into place.
- Focus on those that have been hurt the most:
The COVID-19 recession hurt Latinas and Black women, Latino and Black men disproportionately, and recovery efforts need to focus primarily on helping to get them back to work. For the tens of thousands of immigrants that lost their jobs in food service, hospitality and other industries that are not coming back any time soon, integrated English and employment services are crucially important. With the recent expansion of funding for English language services in the proposed state budget, there should be a focus on models like JVS’s English For Advancement, that specifically help individuals improve their English and secure employment. Beyond immigrant communities of color, investment in job training that includes wrap-around support services, intensive coaching, as well as technical training will be key.
- Short-term job training:
Unemployed low-income individuals cannot afford expensive or long-term training that is not directly tied to jobs. Public investment during the recovery should be directed to proven short-term training models with strong employer engagement and investment in sectors that are adding jobs. Investment in training stipends or paid short-term apprenticeship-like models should be prioritized to allow individuals to earn while they prepare for their new job.
- Addressing the digital divide:
The past year has certainly exposed the challenges of the digital divide, as everything from unemployment benefit applications, training programs, and job applications required digital access and knowledge. Much of that will continue well past the pandemic. Public and private investments and policies should focus on low to no cost broadband access, inexpensive or free equipment, and easily accessible digital navigation help. Programs like Tech Goes Home are designed to meet this challenge and should be supported and expanded.
- Addressing the childcare challenge:
One of the primary issues keep unemployed job seekers from taking available jobs is the lack of regular in-person schooling and childcare. The in-person school situation should improve by the fall of 2021, but the childcare challenge is a much harder nut to crack. There is an absolute shortage of childcare slots, and affordable childcare slots are even rarer. Investments in childcare infrastructure, workforce, and affordability will be critically important to re-starting the job market.
- Focusing on job quality:
Another factor keeping many low-income workers from going back to work is the quality of the jobs that are available. Health concerns, stubbornly low wages, and challenging schedules were big problems before the pandemic recession, and they remain. Whether it take place through public policies such as increased human service reimbursement rates and increased minimum wages, or employer policies like increased wages, hiring bonuses, and greater attention to workplace safety and reasonable family-friendly scheduling, unless more attention is paid to job quality, the current labor market disfunction will continue.
Likely, we can look forward to robust economic growth in 2021 and 2022. However, if we depend solely on market forces to repair the economic and labor market damage done by COVID-19, we will certainly delay real recovery for low-income workers, and likely exacerbate and extend our already acute patterns of income and wealth inequality.