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Ivanka, coronavirus, and the messy truth about the ‘skills gap’

The message behind the White House’s “Find Something New” campaign has some merit. Too bad the messenger is so mockable.

Ivanka, coronavirus, and the messy truth about the ‘skills gap’
[Source Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images, klyaksun/iStock, Ostill/iStock, nirat/iStock]

This week, Ivanka Trump helped to roll out a White House-backed ad campaign dubbed “Find Something New,” which encourages people to consider “more than one path to a new career.” The scorn on social media came faster than you can spell d-i-l-e-t-t-a-n-t-e.

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“Ivanka: Oh you’re out of work?” read one of the thousands of tweets lampooning the effort. “Why can’t you just, like, get a new job in a completely different field? I went from handbag designer to working in the White House—it was so easy!”

Others skewered the campaign website for touting, among a dozen fields expected to grow, two occupations for which President Trump clearly has little use, given his dismissiveness of the COVID-19 pandemic and his devotion to dirty energy: contact tracer and wind-turbine technician.

The response was not without justification. The Trump administration has totally bungled the health crisis, leaving more than 30 million Americans now collecting unemployment relief. In this moment, what’s most critical is to wrest control of the coronavirus and get as many people as possible back into their old jobs—before more temporary furloughs harden into permanent layoffs.

[Source Photos: klyaksun/iStock, Ostill/iStock, nirat/iStock]
Nevertheless, behind the tone-deaf campaign slogan and its imperfect unveiling lies an urgent imperative: to provide more ways for people to acquire new knowledge and skills in the face of a fast-changing economy.

“Since the 1980s, the bachelor’s degree has been the gold standard for stable employment and lifetime earnings and the most promising route to the middle class,” the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce noted in a report earlier this year. Yet it is not one that most Americans are able to attain. Fewer than 4 in 10 U.S. adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.

As a society, we need a much more robust slate of learning options—and, in turn, new mechanisms to ensure that those who avail themselves of these opportunities can then find a decent job. Community college classes, apprenticeships, and courses from online institutions, coding boot camps, and technical schools should all be in the mix.

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So, too, should drawing on work experience itself. A study published in March by the social enterprise Opportunity@Work and Accenture found that there are more than 70 million Americans who’ve learned enough on the job to qualify them to succeed in a higher-wage position. It characterized this group—called STARS, for Skilled Through Alternative Routes—as “a vast overlooked talent pool.”

The White House campaign, which was in the works before COVID-19 struck, is part of a broader push from a growing number of players—including nonprofits, workforce agencies, and nontraditional educational organizations—to demonstrate that there is merit in pursuing many different avenues to learning after high school.

Many companies, for their part, are quick to complain about “skills gaps” and “talent shortages.” Much of this is self-inflicted; many times, they could attract all the workers they need if they simply paid more.

Corporate America has also contributed greatly to the country’s bachelor’s-or-bust mindset—especially when labor is plentiful. They automatically screen out anyone without a degree who could otherwise do the job.

But businesses are starting to wake up as well. More and more companies are taking into account people’s competencies, not just their credentials, when hiring.

[Source Photos: klyaksun/iStock, Ostill/iStock, nirat/iStock]
IBM and Apple—both of which are among the companies that are supporting “Find Something New”—no longer require applicants to have a four-year degree. Others, such as AT&T and Bank of America, are tapping training programs such as Year Up to find promising job candidates from underserved communities whom they’d otherwise miss.

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Walmart, through its philanthropic arm, is funding an array of innovative models aimed at helping frontline workers garner new skills. (Full disclosure: One of these is Bendable, a lifelong learning system that my Drucker Institute colleagues and I recently launched.) JPMorgan Chase is also making investments along these lines.

All of this is commendable. But, as I’ve pointed out before, driving meaningful change is going to be extremely difficult. Four-year colleges and universities have a tremendous interest in preventing their main product—the bachelor’s degree—from being devalued. And all too many employers continue to view a diploma as a proxy for ability.

Dislodging structures that are so entrenched is going to take much more than an ad blitz. This, however, is where the White House falls terribly short.

For starters, it’s tough to take seriously that the Trump administration is looking out for workers when it has scaled back overtime pay for millions of people, gutted a host of job-related safety rules, and exhibited little appetite for extending the $600 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits that is keeping many Americans afloat.

Training and education are crucial, but they aren’t magic. If workers are to get a leg up, they need a stronger voice and more power—all of which Trump has fought hard against.

On the training front, Trump has made a bit of progress. He boosted the number of apprentices in the United States to more than 600,000—a sizable jump from when he took office. But it’s a long way from the 5 million he initially promised. And it’s not nearly enough to reshape the dynamics of the job market.

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Trump has also proposed increasing the budget for career and technical education—but he’d make such deep cuts in other areas related to schools and workforce development that even the biggest advocates of vocational instruction wound up expressing wariness about the whole package.

In the end, we are still tinkering around the edges with all of this. We need to think much bigger—on the scale of “a GI Bill for upskilling workers,” as Pace University President Marvin Krislov has suggested.

We also need more safeguards. As types of learning expand, we can’t let individuals fall victim to unscrupulous for-profit purveyors peddling low-quality offerings.

[Source Photos: klyaksun/iStock, Ostill/iStock, nirat/iStock]
“For too many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the expanding landscape of postsecondary education has brought risk rather than opportunity, confusion rather than access, frustration rather than accomplishment,” the Lumina Foundation has warned.

Finally, we must revamp the way we connect learners with employers that are themselves held to high standards. As Ryan Craig, managing director at the investment firm University Ventures, has put it: “Given persistent hiring friction when things were going well . . . it’s imperative that new public and philanthropic investments in putting America back to work extend beyond upskilling and education and include actual placement into good jobs.”

The message at the root of “Find Something New” really is important. But, sadly, the messenger is mockable—and the substance behind it meager at best.

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About the author

Rick Wartzman is head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute and the author of four books, including his latest, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. You can follow him @RWartzman.

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