Reimagining Workforce Development in the Age of COVID

As local governments around the country continue to grapple with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen Goldsmith, Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, recently released a new book along with Kate Markin Coleman.

Published on March 11, 2022  

Ash: As employers grapple with a historically tight labor market, are policymakers paying enough attention to workforce development issues in their communities?

Goldsmith: The tight job market requires not just more attention by officials but different policies as well. The approaches necessary to respond to current labor conditions effectively and fairly need to be bolder and more coordinated. Workforce development efforts involve so many fragmented stakeholders that change comes too incrementally. My coauthor Kate Markin Coleman and I in our two years of research found plenty of examples of programs that will increase productivity, economic mobility, and equity but producing better results at scale requires weaving these various pieces together in new ways.

Ash: How has the changing nature of work, which has been accelerated by the pandemic, placed an even greater need for increased investment in job training and skills development programs?

Goldsmith: Some experts and commentators call the current situation the “Great Resignation” as dropouts and retirements dramatically accelerated in the time dominated by COVID. Others call it the great reshuffle as millions of people have left jobs in search of more satisfying work. Kate and I call it an opportunity. Employers need millions of mid-skill jobs, such as medical device and advanced machine workers. And across our country millions of people wanting to and capable of filling those jobs just need specific skills. Increased investments in job training will help more if they incorporate a skill-based system of hiring and training according to employer needs—one that does not put obstacles in front of many workers of color by requiring of them unnecessary college degrees.

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The current job market presents an opportunity to improve on skill-based hiring and training, ensuring to remove barriers along the way, argues Professor Stephen Goldsmith.

Ash: Well before COVID, as you document in your book, even fewer people were moving up and out of poverty than previous generations in the US. What are steps that can government leaders should take to reverse this trend?

Goldsmith: Fewer people are moving up and out of poverty due to many reasons. Crushing poverty in many urban neighborhoods affects child development. Struggling neighborhoods also harm adult workers as they lack basic support systems such as good transit or social support networks. Improvements in our understanding of brain science, cross-sector collaboration and the critical elements of effective skilling programs are some of the components in the ten principles we advocate.

Ash: COVID hit cities particularly hard, with many downtown areas still a shadow of their former pre-pandemic selves. As cities continue the arduous work of rebuilding their economies, how do they ensure that post-pandemic growth is more inclusive and equitable?

Goldsmith: The best way to cause more equitable growth is for local elected officials to lead. Cities and their regions need to be the focus of the answer. Mayoral leadership needs to bring the stakeholders together. Nonprofits should coordinate their wraparound services. Equity requires better use of data. Real-time data and analytics such as we profile in the Atlanta chapter uncovered racial imbalances in hiring for better jobs and helped show how to construct the missing rungs of training and wraparound services for those being left behind.