Just six months ago, unemployment was so low that many companies struggled to recruit and keep skilled workers. Some employers offered employees enhanced education benefits, both to entice them to stay and to get them better trained for their roles.
Now, though, the job market has crashed, and millions of Americans are out of work or furloughed. And they’re the target audience of a new ad campaign from a White House task force encouraging unemployed or underemployed Americans to take the initiative to strengthen their job skills in order to “find something new.”
Created with input and funding from members of the task force—called the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board—as well as the Business Roundtable association of CEOs, the campaign includes a TV commercial and a website that highlights hot jobs and the pathways people can use to secure those opportunities.
The jobs data, which comes from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, highlights careers that were in high demand before the pandemic, such as nurse, electrician, and wind turbine technician, as well as some emerging occupations like contact tracer. The pathways information describes an array of options for building job skills, including apprenticeships, certificate programs and associate degrees—all billed as alternatives to a four-year bachelor’s degree.
“There are many pathways to great opportunities,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of online Western Governors University and a member of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, in an interview. “Degrees aren’t the only path.”
Pathways offered by organizations represented on the task force—some public, some nonprofit, some for-profit—get prominent placement on the campaign website.
Although the ad campaign was in the works before the COVID-19 outbreak and accompanying economic downturn, some observers have criticized the campaign’s timing and message as “tone-deaf,” since a recession is, by definition, usually not a promising time to “find something new” in terms of employment.
Others worry that the campaign’s promotion of non-degree programs will encourage students and workers to seek certificates from for-profit institutions, whose offerings, research shows, are often more costly and less likely to result in earnings gains than credentials from public colleges.
“There needs to be more of a focus on which programs are high-quality,” said Stephanie Riegg Cellini, professor of public policy and economics at George Washington University who studies for-profit higher education. She added that the website offers “no differentiation between programs with high completion rates and low completion rates, high costs and low costs.”
New Opportunities or Old Problems?
The Find Something New campaign is the latest federal effort to support a skills-based approach to higher education and job training. Its launch comes a few weeks after President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to prioritize job skills, not academic credentials, in their hiring practices.
Both moves stem from recommendations made by the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, which Trump established by executive order in July 2018. The board, co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Ivanka Trump, is composed of major employers like IBM and Apple, some state governors, leaders of community colleges and heads of non-traditional higher ed providers like Western Governors University and Udacity.
Despite the new campaign’s slogan, Pulsipher said it’s not up to workers alone to find good jobs, but that the responsibility for aiding them should be shared by education institutions, employers and the government. The pandemic may have disrupted employer investment in workforce training, but he believes that change will be temporary.
“I would anticipate more employer engagement in the talent supply chain, not less,” Pulsipher said.
Shared public and private, individual and collective responsibility for economic recovery is a theme of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board’s new “call to action,” a list of recommendations for how to support American workers during the pandemic and beyond. Included in the document is a proposal that “high-quality, short-term, market-aligned credential programs that stack into lifelong learning opportunities” become more eligible for federal student financial aid.
It’s an idea that’s been debated before. Skeptics argue that this kind of policy change could fuel the rise of unproven for-profit programs that may take taxpayer dollars without leaving job seekers demonstrably better off—a problem that became more pronounced the last time there was a recession.
With the economy back in the dumps, students and workers may again become vulnerable, Cellini said, especially because the Trump administration has reversed protections against predatory higher ed providers put in place by the Obama administration.
“There’s been a rollback on any kind of regulation that would potentially help students assess [the] quality” of education and training programs, she said.
Guidance on the quality of short-term credentials also seems absent from the Find Something New campaign, Cellini said. The top results on each pathway page are for programs affiliated with members of the White House task force, such as Apple, IBM and Western Governors University.
“There’s very little on this website to suggest what students should be looking for,” Cellini said.
Outcomes data is of concern to the task force, however, at least according to its “call to action” document, which says education and training providers should partner with the government to “promote high-quality educational opportunities by measuring and publishing outcome data. This includes measuring skill acquisition and making such information more readily available for learner and employer use.”
The government’s shift in favor of skills-focused higher education and alternative pathways seems likely to endure under the Trump administration. The American Workforce Policy Advisory Board was set to dissolve this summer, but Trump recently extended its life another year, until September 2021.