Taking notes from state and local governments on workforce issues

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The federal government operates countless programs aimed at strengthening a U.S. workforce, beset by technology change and the wholesale movement of manufacturing to cheap labor nations. But the issue affects the state governments much more than the federal. All the more so because of the coronavirus pandemic. The National Governors Association, through newly published guidance, has a lot to say about workforce issues. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the NGA’s program director for economic opportunity, Rachael Stephens.

Interview transcript:


Tom Temin: Mrs. Stephens, good to have you on.

Rachael Stephens: Thank you, Tom. It’s great to be here.

Tom Temin: And let’s begin with the beginning, when the states and the governor’s talk about workforce policy, what do they mean exactly?

Rachael Stephens: That’s a really important question. It means different things to policy wonks in the workforce development space, but in its simplest form, and in the way that we use it in the title of the guide that we just published that you referred to workforce policy is a term we’re using broadly to encompass all of the policy that governs funding programs and services that are aimed at strengthening the American workforce and it’s helping people achieve quality and life sustaining employment.

Tom Temin: Now, this has been a federal topic for many, many years — and I don’t know how many programs there are, probably hundreds, a lot of is funding that goes through states ultimately. From the standpoint of the Governors Association, and therefore I guess the governors, how relevant and how well formed is federal policy in relation to what the states actually face with their workforces?

Rachael Stephens: Well, as you pointed out, a significant portion of the funds that states have to spend on workforce development are provided by the federal government through legislation and regulations that are implemented at the federal level, the federal government really has the opportunity to set the top line priorities on things like who needs to receive specific services, how those services need to align and coordinate across workforce development, along with other agencies, as well as the post secondary education training — and on things like performance and accountability, and what the goals and metrics are that states need to be striving for in the program. You also mentioned these programs really range across a lot of different agencies. The Department of Labor, of course, is a big player here. The Department of Education also oversees significant workforce training funds, and their programs funded through tons of other agencies. Nearly every agency from Health and Human Services to the Department of Agriculture. Federal legislation does govern the structure of workforce development policy in states, specifically through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Tom Temin: But in general, in the view of the NGA, is the federal government the best place to set that policy or should it sort of bubble up from the states that are on the front lines with their own workforces?

Rachael Stephens: It’s definitely a state federal partnership as far as identifying what the priorities need to be and where workforce development policy needs to go. And I think that in general, the federal government does a really good job of listening to the perspective of governors and other state leaders in crafting their policy and that’s certainly a priority for NGA is really making sure we’re representing governor’s voices in our policy recommendation. My team and I do a lot of work to help governors understand what actions that they can take. We also partner with other team members at NGA to help inform and influence federal legislation on a bipartisan basis on behalf of all governors.

Tom Temin: Alright. So now the NGA has issued a publication just a week ago or so reimagining workforce policy in the age of disruption, and this was actually prepared before the pandemic, but now we really know what disruption is all about. So what was the purpose of this study and of the resulting policy of reimagining? And then we can get to how pandemic has made things much worse.

Rachael Stephens: Oh, great. Yes. That’s a fun conversation. But to start with we really entered into this work in a pretty different context. As you rightfully pointed out, the future workforce now initiative, we launched that back in 2018, with two partners FHI 360, which is an international health and development organization, and the Fab Foundation whose mission is to bridge the digital divide by really democratizing access to digital training tools. And we know that’s just increasingly important in the 21st century economy, technologys been changing more rapidly in this generation than ever before and policy needs to be able to change to keep up, and programs needs to be able to change to keep up. So our real goal with this was to gather experts from multiple different fields, gather state policymakers across the political spectrum together and from across different types of programs, to talk about what these disruptions really look like, how they’re really impacting everyday workers and workplaces, and then what all of that needs to mean especially for state education and training policy.

Tom Temin: And aside from the COVID and the pandemic, what were the big disruptors that maybe we didn’t already know about that you found in this study? I mean, China and the decline in manufacturing has been well documented for a long time.

Rachael Stephens: Yeah, I think we saw the conversations really focused on three key ways that technology is really disrupting our workforce. We all are familiar with the conversations and fears around jobs being eliminated, but the story in the evidence we gathered really tells us a much more nuanced story. And that is the jobs will be both created and eliminated. And in a lot of situations technologies like AI, robotics might replace human, but it’s also likely that a lot of new jobs will be created that really rely on a human and machine interaction. That really means significant changes in the types of skills people need to do similar jobs. It’s also important to recognize that technology is going to negatively impact or potentially eliminate mainly jobs that are lower paying and disproportionately currently held by people of color. So we need to understand that and be targeting policies to ensure that those people specifically are going to be aided and able to take advantage of the many benefits technological construction does provide, rather than being victims of it.

Tom Temin: Because when you drive through the average rural town in the United States, it’s surprising when you see a store with a sign that’s actually still open and operating. So I guess is this challenge for the federal policy and state policy to make sure whatever good things need to happen to enable a workforce is that they somehow penetrate out beyond the rich urban counties to the places where everybody’s got a rusting tractor in the front yard.

Rachael Stephens: That’s absolutely the case, access to capital outside of major metropolitan areas is a huge problem. And you can’t really disentangle the need for good job training education from the need for capital to be injected into communities for business growth and development. And I think we’re maybe slowly starting to see some trends shifting in that direction. And personally, I’m very curious to see the impact COVID-19 has on how businesses choose to think about where they locate and why with a lot of people in certain sectors, at least working remotely more. So I think that’s absolutely critical for both state and federal level policy to consider.

Tom Temin: Now the pandemic has had the unusual effect at least since the great not so much recession, but depression nearly almost 100 years ago, of creating mass urban unemployment in the United States. So how do you think that should affect policy with respect to workforce development, workforce enablement, again at the state and federal levels.

Rachael Stephens: Workforce policy, states are really looking at both their metropolitan and their rural regions to really assess where the need is. That’s one of the key priorities, especially in a situation with budget constraints which every state will be facing, and with limited federal resources available. States will need to be looking at where the need is and their metropolitan areas, which communities specifically have been most negatively impacted by COVID-19 unemployment and ensure that they’re delivering services effectively. There’s definitely challenges with actually getting people into programs in cities, not just in rural areas where it might be easier to understand why it’s hard to reach people physically even in terms of their geographic location. But in cities, there’s also significant challenges with reaching low income communities, people who are unemployed, especially those who have been unemployed for long periods of time, and that has long been a priority and a challenge and it’s one that I think people are really going to need to be focusing on as they pursue some of the solutions that we’ve recommended in the guide.

Tom Temin: And briefly, what are the top, say two or three recommendations that you came up with for workforce policy?

Rachael Stephens:The guide that we’ve released really focuses on three transformational objectives to carry out a part of an agenda to establish a really resilient workforce, it’s ready to face the world that we’re living in today, both in rural and urban areas. Those three transformational objectives are to build a statewide ecosystem that really promotes lifelong learning for all workers, innovating teaching and learning models to close the digital skills gap, and increasing investment in the comprehensive support and services people need in order to really be able to succeed in the workforce. And that means things like access to financial aid, career advice information, portable credentials, and flexibility to succeed in the gig economy — as well as services people need like childcare to be able to really take advantage of the opportunities that will present themselves. We’ve broken this down in the guide into 10 policy pathways that states can use to achieve these transformations, and from there, each pathway has really a plethora of state policy options and examples. We’ve drawn examples from over 40 states, 150 or so in total and counting. So hopefully this will be a really tremendous and we believe a really vital resource for governors and other policy makers as they’re looking to address all the challenges that the pandemic and the national conversation of systemic racism are presenting us with today.

Tom Temin: Rachel Stephens is program director for economic opportunity at the National Governors Association. Thanks so much for joining me.

Rachael Stephens: Thank you so much for having me Tom. I hope to talk to you again soon.

Read the guidance here.