Past Event

Working Learners

Educating Our Entire Workforce in the 21st Century

10:00 AM - 12:00 PM EDT

“If you’ve been displaced from a job, it doesn’t matter how you were displaced,” said Representative John Tierney (D-MA) at a CAP event on postsecondary education and workforce development on Friday. “This shouldn’t be system of unemployment—it should be a system of reemployment.”

Tierney gave opening remarks alongside Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training at the U.S. Department of Labor. The panel that followed these speakers was moderated by Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at Center for Law and Social Policy. Panelists included Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at The Education Sector; Jim Hermes, senior legislative associate at the American Association of Community Colleges; and Nanine Meiklejohn, legislative affairs specialist at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The event marked the launch of a new paper on postsecondary education by Louis Soares, the Director of the Economic Mobility program at the Center for American Progress.

Soares backed the Obama administration’s three goals for education and workforce development: ensuring that all Americans get at least one year of postsecondary education, reclaiming the world’s top spot in college completion by 2020, and producing 5 million new community college graduates in the next 10 years.

He emphasized the benefits of increased postsecondary education—it is correlated with greater economic growth, higher incomes, adaptability during recessions, and increased civic participation and quality of life—but he did not understate the difficulty of achieving it. “All these goals will require engaging individuals who have either never tried or tried and failed at postsecondary education,” he said.

This group, which Soares he called “working learners,” is approximately 75 million. He argued that in today’s dynamic labor market workforce policy should focus not only on emergency unemployment counseling but also on making career coaching and skills training available to all workers. This requires reforming and integrating the education and workforce development systems by retooling the employment service as a “one-stop” career center, making financial aid available for working learners, and investing in and improving community colleges.

Oates described the Obama administration’s education and workforce development agenda, which includes changes to the student loan system and Pell Grants as well as historic investments in community colleges.

The administration’s community college initiative, Oates revealed, seeks to improve these schools by supporting programs, new initiatives such as online instruction, and critical facilities needs. “If community colleges are really to compete with for-profit schools, good ones and bad, they’ve got to have greater flexibility to get the equipment that they need to respond to the needs of business in real time,” Oates said.

She underscored that reform will require assessing and making changes to the workforce development system, including community colleges and Workforce Investment Boards that plan and oversee state and local workforce development and job training programs. “I believe that there are certain Work Investment Boards that are excellent and should be models for the country, there are others that need remedial help immediately, and there are others that I believe even with remedial help will have to be closed,” she said.

Oates stressed that dialogue between stakeholders and the administration must be part of the reform process. “This administration … is not only open to critical friends, we’re anxious to have their input. Because the only way we’re going to improve this system so that it better serves everyone is to listen to the criticisms of the system and make adjustments were necessary,” Oates said.

Carey pointed out that, “If we’re serious about reaching these very ambitious targets for increasing postsecondary attainment I think we’re going to need an expanded view of who we think can provide [it].”

He argued that by coupling increased student assistance with a system of quality control based on educational outcomes rather than on accrediting traditional institutions, new actors could step in to provide skills training. “Maybe employers would do it, maybe unions would do it. Maybe people would start to really specialize in providing certain kinds of skills and knowledge but wouldn’t look much like a community college or four-year institution.”

Representative Tierney suggested that in addition to helping working families, workforce investment could promote congressional support for smarter defense spending. Many weapons systems are over budget or nonessential, but they continue to get funded because of the jobs they bring at the expense of critical defense priorities. “There is a devastating effect if the system that shuts down is in your neighborhood. So while it seems like common sense to vote to eliminate it, when you do that, you suffer the consequences of losing jobs … because we don’t have a policy in this country for keeping people at work and if they get displaced putting them back to work,” Tierney said.

Opening Remarks:
Representative John Tierney (D-MA)
Jane Oates, Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training, US Department of Labor

Paper Presentation:
Louis Soares, Director of the Economic Mobility Program, Center for American Progress

Featured Panelists:
Kevin Carey, Research and Policy Manager, The Education Sector
Jim Hermes, Senior Legislative Associate, American Association of Community Colleges
Nanine Meiklejohn, Legislative Affairs Specialist, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

Moderated by:
Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)