It’s Time To Modernize Our Workforce System And Scale Innovation

It’s Time To Modernize Our Workforce System And Scale Innovation

The demand for skilled labor and the need for rapid reskilling of talent has never been greater. 

While economists debate the prospects of recession and the pace of hiring slows, U.S. employers are struggling to fill an estimated 9.6 million jobs as unemployment still hovers near all-time lows at just 3.4%, according to the latest jobs report.  

Even though hiring rates are down from record highs during the pandemic, the tight labor market has highlighted that demand for skilled labor and the need for rapid reskilling of talent has never been greater. 

A thought-provoking report from the Harvard Project on The Workforce shines a light on the underrealized promise that public workforce programs have in creating opportunities for American workers to develop skills for in-demand jobs. The report looked at a landscape of more than 75,000 training providers eligible for federal funds (Eligible Training Providers or ETPs). It points out the inadequate funding of the system and the challenges workers have navigating it. It also touches on the fact that limited access to labor market data can mean regional investments in areas of projected job growth are not always prioritized. These findings underscore that our current system defines success by the number of job placements rather than the successful hiring of workers into quality jobs.

 As someone who has worked closely with this system for over three decades, I’ve witnessed a few examples of the misalignment between our workforce infrastructure and the aspirations of our nation for economic equity.  

So what to do about it? We have to work within the system to fix the issues identified in the Harvard report, but even that won’t be close enough. We must also invest in integrated systems built for the future that have sufficient scale to meet the demands of the labor market.  


Here are four ideas to kickstart the transformation of our public workforce systems: 

Take a holistic approach and break down silos

Federal programs focused on workforce development and training are often administered by different federal agencies and overseen by separate Congressional committees—making it difficult, if not impossible, to align objectives, accountability structures, and governance models.  

Responding to individual agencies and oversight groups limits our collective ability to think beyond existing statutes and structures; instead, we too often focus on narrow reforms that solve one issue while kicking the can down the road on large-scale change.  

Three critically important components of the workforce system are currently under review in Congress and the Biden administration: reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), growth of Registered Apprenticeships, and expansion of Pell Grants to include high-quality short-term credentials.  

The problem? While these issues are intertwined, we treat them as if they were separate issues. What if we embarked on a cross-sector, bipartisan collaborative that uses these solutions (and others) to design a system that leads to better outcomes? 

Design today for what we need tomorrow

As is too often the case in large bureaucratic systems, our regulatory and legislative bodies lag behind the rapid pace of change in the marketplace. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) saw passage in 1998, and its successor, WIOA, in 2014. And yet think of all that has changed in the last year, let alone the last decade! 

For example, when I was part of the U. S. Department of Labor team that worked to develop the WIA, we were still faxing legislative language to Capitol Hill. Since then, society has grown accustomed to remote work, virtual learning, AI, and mobile computing resulting in faster, more effective communications and knowledge transfer than ever before. These technologies have opened up infinite possibilities for supporting learning and work. 

And yet today, we still rely heavily on brick-and-mortar access points and single-career skills training during a time when skills-based hiring and career mobility across different jobs and sectors are taking off.  

Most regional workforce boards lack the right resources and tools to apply these new practices. However, pockets of innovation do exist. 

For example, take the six workforce boards that participated in the recent Future of Work Grand Challenge, a competition focused on finding innovative ways to help displaced workers rapidly reskill so they can move into high-wage jobs. 

We need to see more examples of innovations from our local workforce development boards collaborating with tech companies and pursuing training interventions that are employer-led, tech-enabled, and delivered digitally to maximize impact. 

Question the assumptions

The past three years have offered learners and workers around the globe a master class in questioning the way things have always been. Models of work, education, health care, and more shifted abruptly at the start of the pandemic—and for some, revealed new and sustainable solutions.  

We built the U.S. workforce system to meet the needs of the previous era, and in many ways, the day-to-day operations have not changed enough to meet the demands of today. Learners and workers today face mounting challenges that make economic mobility harder to achieve: the exorbitant cost of postsecondary education, outsourcing and globalization, the growing automation of jobs, and more. Furthermore, Black and Hispanic workers continue to cluster in lower-paying jobs due to persistent systemic barriers, including inequitable access to education and employment practices that lead to occupational segregation. 

To create a strong economy with equitable economic advancement opportunities for all, we need to look at the conditions of this moment, embrace new thinking that recognizes today’s needs, and build a system that can adapt quickly as economic and labor market conditions continue to shift and evolve. 

Invest in big ideas

Our capacity for innovation is limitless when our public and private sectors join forces to solve big problems. But it’s rare to see focused investment and effort applied to social challenges. If we want the public workforce system to help workers, we must address this. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the Department of Defense, has been instrumental in developing some of the most life-changing technologies of the past century. It is time we took that approach to strengthen our labor market, creating an agency focused on innovation and creative problem-solving for our workforce.  

 The public workforce system is accessed by millions of workers each year. It is a tremendous opportunity to boost our economy and the economic prospects of millions of Americans. We must modernize the current system and invest in scaling innovative practices and a transformative new system. As technological advances and changes in the global economy transform the nature of work, it’s time to harness the power and potential of education and workforce development to prepare the resilient, responsive, and supported workers of today for a prosperous future for all.