Improving Our Workforce Policies

By Casey Schoeneberger
May 12, 2011

Earlier this week, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) hosted an event titled “Developing America’s Workforce: Learning from 40 years of policy and practice to inform the next generation”. Kudos to CLASP for bringing together a dynamic panel of speakers — crossing political spectrums and administrations — to bluntly discuss obstacles that stand in the way of common-sense workforce development policy.

Former Secretary of Labor in the Carter Administration, Ray Marshall, demanded policymakers cut through the weeds and focus on the real issues. According to Marshall, when designed right, workforce development can benefit government, citizens and enterprises.  America is lacking closely coordinated economic and workforce policies, however, and without those coordinated policy pieces America will never be prepared for the next turn in the economy.

Robert Jones, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training in the Reagan and George H. W Bush Administrations, called for universal, lifelong access to job training and an easily accessible database for  understanding labor market demand in a desired field — or lack thereof.   He also told the audience in no uncertain terms that investing in America’s workforce is fundamentally economic — and not social -l- policy.

Kitty Higgins, Deputy Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, said never before has she seen workers demonized in this manner. With all the attacks on unions, teachers and benefits, workers have suddenly become the “cause” of the problem. Higgins suggests that all workforce development begin with demonstration projects to show politicians and the American public a program’s effectiveness.

William Brock, Secretary of Labor in the Reagan Administration, unequivocally stated that America is now paying the price for what we did not do in education decades ago. To advance America’s workforce, according to Brock, we must connect the education system to the needs of the labor market.

Steven Gunderson, a Republican Congressman from Wisconsin from 1980-1996, pointed out that Congress is terrific at responding to crisis situations but horrible at responding to long-term goals. Further citing the effect of the election cycle on policymaking, Gunderson cites the shrinking middle class as another cause of a lack of workforce development policy. According to Gunderson, the diminishing middle class means there is no longer a constituency to invest in.

I can only hope that advocates and policymakers in future decades will not sit in the same room, having the same conversations about stagnant unemployment rates, speculating how policymakers should have responded to the needs of the labor markets. If every Congressperson could have listened to the decades of collective experience from people who’ve developed workforce policies, we might have a chance to get Americans back to work. It is unfortunate though — to say the least — that the exact policies we need to get Americans back to work are the policies and programs politicians are looking to slash and burn.

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