Let me praise the Task Force co-chairs, directors, and members for producing a report that is clear-eyed and comprehensive in its assessment of the current state of the U.S. workforce. I am proud and humbled to have been a member of this group, and I endorse the report. That said, there are places the report should go further with its recommendations to prepare the U.S. workforce for the new world that is already here.
Create a national floor for workplace readiness standards. The report strongly advocates for workplace readiness standards that would prepare students with the targeted technical skills the job market demands (such as computer programming) and habits of mind that will always be needed (such as communication skills and leadership across difference). However, I depart from the report on this matter because I strongly believe that these standards should be developed nationally— not by each state individually. While I believe there should be regional variation, there needs to be a national floor for workforce readiness in the U.S. educational system so a business knows that wherever it is, students are properly prepared. I believe the National Commission on the U.S. Workforce would be an excellent venue for all stakeholders (public, private, and social sector) to develop these critical standards.
Focus on returning citizens. Thousands of people reenter American society every year following incarceration. They are disproportionately poor and minority and, according to the Brookings Institution, are likely to be rearrested within five years. Helping this population reenter the workforce would enhance both social justice and workforce competitiveness. To do so, the United States should remove many of the regulations and laws that keep returning citizens from getting back into the workforce. For example, many states allow occupational licensing boards and private employers to summarily reject applicants purely because of a criminal history. Barriers like these should be removed and resources should be put into preparing returning citizens for the jobs of the future before they reenter. The Last Mile is a group that teaches prisoners at San Quentin State Prison to code, and Defy Ventures is helping current and formerly incarcerated people become entrepreneurs. Efforts like these should be encouraged, given resources, and replicated across the country.
Increase the national minimum wage. The report calls for targeted minimum-wage increases across the country; I believe that the report should go further and advocate for a higher federal minimum wage across the country. While a minimum-wage increase would not, in and of itself, solve the workforce challenge, it would make a substantial difference to millions of minimum-wage workers across the country.
Pairing these additional recommendations with those already in the report will provide a real road map to creating the workforce that the economy demands and the United States deserves.
––Chike Aguh, joined by Cecilia E. Rouse
This report provides a critically important and timely blueprint for building a stronger U.S. workforce. In particular, the findings in the section “Support for Work in the New Economy” highlight the growing challenges faced by some of the most vulnerable Americans—and the corresponding recommendations advance creative policy responses to mitigate the effects of technological changes and alterations in the traditional employer-employee relationship.
I offer four additional points below: the first two to clarify how the report ties into my own perspectives on trade, and the third and fourth to amplify specific findings and recommendations.
Expanded trade and investment can bring significant benefits to a broad cross section of the U.S. workforce. However, experience shows that this is by no means inevitable, and it is therefore essential that policies and programs be crafted carefully to support greater job creation, promote workers’ rights at home and abroad, and advance sustainable economic growth.
Trade Adjustment Assistance indeed was, as noted in endnote 106, “part of the political bargain” on trade when it was established in 1962 and over the succeeding half century. That makes it all the more important that the recommendation to eliminate TAA is part of a proposal for a broader and more generous program for displaced workers.
The report’s call for employers to “commit themselves to creating a ‘high-road workplace’” and for a new leadership award in this area should launch a broader conversation about responsible business conduct—including the role of business in helping address a range of challenges both at home and abroad (particularly today, when government too often fails to fulfill its own responsibilities). The good news is that as more businesses succeed by pursuing these high-road strategies, they will demonstrate what President Obama said in his final State of the Union address: “doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders” as well.
Finally, while the report appropriately centers on the challenges facing the U.S. workforce, these challenges, and therefore the roles of government and the private sector, do not stop at the water’s edge. Workers around the world face new risks of job loss and other dislocation as a result of automation and changing production methods and sourcing practices; the effect is likely to be greatest for those at the bottom of global supply chains, living where governments often lack the resources (and in some cases the political will) to respond adequately. It is essential that government and business leaders find common ground with those representing labor, civil society, and international institutions to develop and implement innovative policies and programs to address these growing global economic and security challenges.
––Eric R. Biel
The United States needs a national innovation investment strategy to maintain global technological leadership. The global economy today is deeply integrated, with borders fungible to technology and competition a constant reality. If the United States does not attract, invest in, and build industries of the future, it will see lower growth, less national wealth, and fewer good jobs.
Historically, the United States has encouraged innovation by building a strong private-sector business environment, relying on laissez-faire capitalism to allocate capital most efficiently, and it has been culturally reluctant to involve government in business. This approach has made the United States the wealthiest country in history.
But the rules of the game are suddenly changing because of the exponential growth of technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain. In the long term, markets will always be the most efficient method of allocating capital. But for now, the United States has to compete with nondemocratic countries that deploy vast amounts of targeted investment capital to win new technology industries and define the future. The United States therefore cannot use the same playbook as yesteryear and requires a new national innovation investment framework to win the industries of the future.
The nature of democracies means that decision-making is inclusive and deliberate, but often slow. In an exponentially growing world where every doubling has dramatic implications, the speed of investment and innovation matters—and the countries that can make faster investment allocation decisions will define the future. Laissez-faire innovation will not be able to compete fast enough with other nations’ targeted investments and mercantilist policies, such as those in China, Estonia, and the United Arab Emirates.
China is allocating $150 billion in its current five-year plan to build a powerhouse artificial intelligence industry. Soon, the country’s facial-recognition capabilities will allow artificial intelligence to identify any citizen within three seconds and with 90 percent accuracy. This is not a result of haphazard market-led innovation, but rather a direct consequence of China’s commitment to becoming the world leader in artificial intelligence within ten years. And if it does so, it will exert oversize influence globally, including on the United States.
The United Arab Emirates has committed to migrating every government transaction onto the blockchain by 2020. If successful, Dubai will likely develop global market leadership in this new industry. And Estonia is building the world’s most advanced e-government and attracting entrepreneurs from around the world to its digital shores. Neither of these are accidents of innovation; they are sustained and deliberate national innovation investment priorities.
The United States needs a proactive and intentional innovation investment strategy to win future industries. Otherwise, its bottom-up model will be slow to compete with other countries’ targeted, top-down innovation priorities. The United States does not need to pick specific winners in an industry or play an activist role in managing the economy, but it does need to develop road maps for critical future industries that will employ many Americans in high-value-added innovation economy jobs.
The United States should pass legislation—the America First Innovation Act—to spur industries of the future by prioritizing investment in them, supporting their growth with regulation, and opening government labs to accelerate their development and private-sector commercialization. U.S. leadership abroad and the future U.S. workforce depend on a new national innovation investment strategy.
––Kian Gohar, joined by Chike Aguh
I am proud to endorse this report, with the following reservations:
The report does not sufficiently stress the risks U.S. workforce challenges present to American democracy and global leadership. These risks are palpable and warrant an aggressive, focused effort. Self-determination, quality of life, and opportunity are core values of the United States. Previous generations knew that with adequate education and training, and a diligent work ethic, there were few limits to what they could achieve. This is no longer true. As Americans feel less secure economically, those insecurities play out in protectionist trade policies, anti-immigrant tendencies, and population polarization along racial and geographic lines. The belief in economic opportunity, free trade, and interdependence have historically strengthened the United States and its economy. However, current rhetoric and policy choices suggest a more individualistic, corporatist path that degrades that spirit and weakens U.S. potential. The long-term consequences of this direction challenge the U.S. posture as the world’s leading democracy, capitalist mecca, and global moral authority. The erosion of opportunity and the visceral policy backlash create a scenario in which only the very fortunate or privileged can be successful, and social unrest becomes more likely.
The report downplays the role of the federal government’s poor investment decisions in our current economic position; these decisions have largely ignored the middle class and made the poor poorer. The federal government’s failure to make globally comparable strategic investments in research and infrastructure during the last several decades has aided in the erosion of the United States’ global economic position. Achieving full employment requires a mix of human-capacity building, strategic investments in research and infrastructure, and thoughtful trade and tax policy. The federal government has made few strategic long-term investments in these areas, but it must do so to expand opportunity and create capacity, just as local governments must tailor and refine solutions for their local realities. Unfortunately, federal investments in basic research are their lowest since the 1950s, and infrastructure deficiencies represent a $4 trillion GDP loss and $7 trillion loss in U.S. sales, which will result in the loss of 2.5 million American jobs by 2025, according to the American Civil Society of Engineers’ 2016 Infrastructure Report Card. Meanwhile, as the private sector increases investments in these areas and foreign governments increase efforts to lure American operations overseas, the outlook is not favorable for U.S. long-term economic competitiveness if national investment trends in the workforce, research, and infrastructure are not reversed.
While the report does acknowledge some racial and geographic disparities, it does not address the undeniable connection between improving outcomes for people of color and boosting the country’s competitive position, strengthening the global narrative, and augmenting economic opportunity. Without significant improvement in the social and economic conditions of nonwhite people, prospects for long-term American economic strength are limited. According to demographic trends, people of color will be the majority of the U.S. population by the 2040s, which means the fate of the United States is inexorably linked to the economic realities of nonwhite people, who typically lag behind the general population in nearly every social and economic indicator. Poor outcomes and lack of access to opportunity for people of color will result in a competitive disadvantage for the United States unless these disparities are addressed directly, with specific programs and policies tailored to these communities.
––Rodrick T. Miller