President Trump has been vocal about protecting American jobs and hasn’t been afraid to call out companies for moving their operations overseas or hiring foreign workers. So far, though, he’s had much less to say about what he would do to make American workers more competitive for both the jobs of today and the ones of tomorrow. That changed yesterday when Vice President Pence and Special Assistant Ivanka Trump hosted a White House Townhall with CEOs from across the country and outlined their plans for strengthening America’s workforce.
A THREE-PART WORKFORCE VISION
The vision outlined by First Daughter Ivanka Trump has three parts, beginning with K-12 education. Here, she emphasized the importance of “STEM skills” for today’s economy, and the need to ensure all high school graduates have them. But the Administration seems most interested in shaking up what students do after they graduate.
The second aspect doubles down on the need for more “skills-based education,” with special attention to apprenticeship. Building on the five million apprenticeships in five years challenge, yesterday’s meeting continued the White House’s apprenticeship drumbeat. There are still a lot of open questions about where this apprenticeship zeal could lead, but the Administration seems rightfully intent on getting industry to do a lot of the leading. But will they? And if so, how? Ivanka Trump’s upcoming visit to Berlin to see German youth apprenticeship in action might provide some inspiration on this point.
The vision’s third and final component focuses on workforce retraining for unemployed and vulnerable workers. Offering skills training to help reemploy Americans left behind by today’s economy is not a new concept. What is new is this Administration’s open acknowledgement that some jobs just aren’t coming back, and that it’s going to take more than better trade deals, tax cuts, and walls to rebuild the middle class.
HARD TRUTHS TO REALIZE THE VISION
Taken together, this “holistic” vision rightly recognizes that workforce development is an issue to be tackled at multiple levels – from K-12, to affordable postsecondary pathways, to reskilling and upskilling working adults. At yesterday’s meeting, the Administration was also right to humbly acknowledge that these are “big topics and projects” that “take time.” While that shouldn’t stop the Trump Administration from taking these issues on, they are likely to come up against some challenges in the process.
The first is money. Major parts of this vision are at odds with the President’s proposed budget cuts to skills investments. In the absence of new investment, Ivanka Trump hinted that steps can be taken to make existing federal workforce dollars work better, including making them work “more collectively,” while also hinting at consolidating some of them outright. The former is a worthy and important effort, especially if it means ensuring programs orient towards the same clear outcomes for both workers and employers. The latter is a mainstay of the Republican workforce agenda, though it's never been clear how moving programs around makes them work any better or even saves any money.
The second challenge is the limitation of relying on industry leadership alone. The Administration is keen to put employers in the driver's seat on workforce, but it will take more than individual pleas for companies to start apprenticeship programs to move the needle. Yesterday the Administration rightly acknowledged that industry can innovate, but achieving scale also means partnership with government where all have skin in the game.
Finally, there is the President himself. Looking at America’s workforce challenges, it’s politically easy to beat up on public schools, higher education, and public training programs. What’s less easy is telling the truth to employers that decry skills gaps, and American workers hit hard by technological change and globalization.
One thing the President could do is send a clear message to his fellow CEOs that they can no longer be passive consumers of talent. It’s time for them to invest big in developing their current and future workforce. He can also make a habit of speaking honestly to constituents in economically distressed regions where some jobs aren’t coming back, and can emphasize that more investment in education and skills are one way to help bring in new jobs and restore opportunity and hope to their communities.Those truths needs telling, and if the President is willing, he seems particularly well positioned to do it.