Developing a new workforce

By Michelle Chen Apr 07, 2009

The latest jobs report contains few surprises: economic contraction and swelling joblessness are expanding economic inequality. Jobs have been slashed across the board, but Blacks and Latinos are experiencing an especially large increase in their already-high unemployment rates. And of course, intensifying job competition will exacerbate systemic obstacles, like low education levels, and further alienate low-income people and people of color from the economic mainstream. Social safety nets, meanwhile, are disintegrating amid budget cuts to everything from schools to subways. Understanding the Catch-22 of joblessness, poverty and inequity isn’t rocket science. So it’s all the more baffling that policymakers aren’t working harder to implement innovative solutions, instead of perpetuating programs ill-equipped to deal with joblessness in a healthy economy, let alone a depressed one. Welfare reform under the Clinton administration spawned a regime of so-called “welfare to work” programs. But barriers to meaningful job opportunities remain stubbornly high and are sure to worsen. One study by the Urban Justice Center describes how New York City’s work programs have warehoused public-assistance recipients in low-skill jobs, with little connection to training or career-oriented educational resources. So far, the stimulus package offers a modest (perhaps too modest) starting point for revitalizing the workforce system, including nearly $4 billion for worker education and training . A basic problem is a wide “skills gap," highlighting the need for “middle skills” job programs. Progressive groups are trying to stay ahead of the political game by mapping out ways to remake and retarget work programs, rather than prop up old bureaucracies. In addition to propelling struggling families toward self-sufficiency, closing the gap might in some cases even be good for the environment. According to analyses by the Economic Policy Institute, investments in green industries like clean energy and transportation infrastructure could bring jobs to less-skilled workers and union workers as well as reduce wage inequality. More than thirty percent of the jobs created by both types of investment would go to Black, Latino and Asian workers. A broader benefit would come in the form of cleaner, more efficient transportation and energy infrastructures. Aside from the stimulus package, clean energy jobs may expand under proposed legislation, pushed by the advocacy group Workforce Alliance, to generate job opportunity at the community level, by integrating government-supported workforce training programs with local businesses, educational institutions and unions. There’s no guarantee that the green promise that some see in the stimulus will be redeemed as states hash out their budgets. But ideally, the returns on investment in a sustainable workforce system would come back full circle. Comprehensive public transportation, local self-sufficiency, and smart urban growth can connect low-income neighborhoods to long-term advancement. And with any luck, people out of work today could look forward to a job on the horizon–while helping build the path to get there. Image: Partnership for Working Families