The COVID-19 outbreak is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Beyond the public health crisis, the pandemic has severely impacted our economy. As of late April, the U.S. has lost more than 26 million jobs — a staggering number compared to the 15 million jobs lost in the financial crisis of 2008. The projections continue to look dim, with some researchers forecasting the U.S. GDP will plummet an annualized 25% from April through June.
As the curves begin to flatten, we need to look toward rebuilding the economy and getting Americans back to work. Stating the goal is the easy part. Implementing it, not as much. How can we not only rebuild the economy, but strengthen it to guard against future black swan events?
By investing in the workforce.
Many industries have been decimated in recent months and it’s unclear when or if they will fully recover. Of the few industries insulated from the ramifications of COVID-19, only one will continue to grow after the pandemic subsides: the tech industry.
Even during this downturn, there’s still a pressing need for tech workers such as developers, engineers, system administrators, and cybersecurity experts. According to a recent report by the news and research website Dice.com, there was a significant increase in job postings within the tech industry in Q1 2020 compared to Q1 2019.
Skills like software and web development will only continue to grow as they enable workers to find meaningful employment in the digital economy. These are stable jobs all over the country and in practically every industry: hospitality, finance, retail, healthcare, government, etc. Furthermore, many tech jobs can be done remotely, so they’re at least somewhat protected from the threat of future outbreaks or related catastrophes.
Prior to COVID-19, we saw rosy reports of record-low unemployment numbers, but those painted only part of the picture. In America, involuntary part-time work is 40% higher than a normal economy should allow. Approximately 1.4 million U.S. workers are stuck in part-time jobs, fighting for fiscal survival. Cracks in the economy were showing long before COVID-19 reached our shores.
This is why I believe that returning to the status quo should not be our goal. Rather, it should be retraining our workforce and equipping workers with 21st century skills.
How can we accomplish this? There’s no silver bullet, but many promising options exist:
- Apprenticeships: workers get paid to learn new skills without incurring student debt, and employers save money on recruitment costs. It’s a win-win. With the apprentice system, businesses can build powerful bases of qualified and effective employees from the ground up.
- Sabbatical retraining programs: turn what was traditionally reserved for tenured employees into an option to retain employees from all levels. The price tag of rehiring talent as the economy bounces back will be staggering. Instead, we can invest in reskilling current employees to fill vacant roles.
- Incentives: reworking federal incentives such as Pell grants, the American Opportunity tax credit, and student loan programs is long overdue. This is the perfect opportunity to expand the purview of these programs to include accelerated vocational training and other programs that prepare workers for the digital economy. This investment will pay dividends because as workers’ salaries increase so do their tax brackets and amount due come Tax Day.
Admittedly, reskilling the American workforce would require a large financial investment upfront. Major changes to legislation and large-scale programs always entail great expense at first. But successful public policy is defined over the long term.
With thoughtful planning and proper execution, we can produce inestimable benefits for American workers and companies alike.