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Making a COVID-19 Case for Workforce Data

  ·   By Rachel Vilsack
Making a COVID-19 Case for Workforce Data

It’s a sobering reality to see initial Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims skyrocket as more than 30 million Americans were furloughed or laid off due to businesses closures in the first six weeks of the nation’s response to COVID-19. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the first look at the full impact of the pandemic on the national unemployment rate with the release of their April Employment Situation report.

As some stay at home orders are lifted and businesses begin to gradually reopen, economic changes mean that some workers will simply not have the opportunity to return to their jobs. These workers will need employment guidance, and many will likely require more intensive training and supportive services. As the past recessions have shown, layoffs have major ripple effects throughout the public workforce and higher education systems.

The need for accurate, timely workforce data will be even more important in this environment – both to guide adult learners toward the best quality retraining programs, and to ensure that data-driven advocacy leads to policies that support an inclusive economic recovery.

Where will the jobs be?

In the current environment, traditional labor market information (LMI) sources are simply not fast enough to help education and workforce practitioners guide unemployed or displaced workers to the industries now facing shortages of trained workers or to the occupations where a quality credential puts individuals on a career pathway towards a family-sustaining wage.

Instead, workforce practitioners will need to rely on up-to-date information through job-listing aggregators or real-time tools that analyze current openings and the skills and credentials needed. There are private-sector vendors that offer these types of in-depth analysis tools to practitioners. But practitioners can also turn to their partners in state government. Specifically, state labor market and economic data experts can provide localized context to real-time trends, and many may already be parsing their own state-level job banks to provide lists of in-demand certifications or openings that support telework or work from home policies.

Longer-term work is underway at a national level. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies received a National Science Foundation grant in 2019 to begin amassing the millions of historical job listings from the National Labor Exchange for researcher access and the development of customer-facing tools integrating. A second phase grant, if awarded, will further this work in 2020.

Of course, real-time data comes with caveats. Caution should be paid to directly comparing year-over-year changes in educational requirements, as job openings for some occupations have disappeared simply because some businesses had to close in response to the pandemic. Depending on how fast the economy rebounds, we’ll need to watch changing job requirements, as employers typically inflate the education and experience requirements needed when labor supply is plentiful as a further way to screen candidates.

In both the short- and long-term, industry-sector partnerships can play a powerful role in  providing pathways for workers to jobs in demand. Through these partnerships, small and mid-size employers – supported by community colleges and workforce development leaders – can have a voice in shaping re-training strategies to meet their skill needs in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This work has already naturally begun to support employers who need frontline workers to support the pandemic.

What do we know about who needs (re)training?

States that have analytic capabilities can start informing local funding and policy decisions by sharing the disaggregated demographics of who has been ­– and who will remain – impacted by the pandemic-shocked economy. For example, Minnesota’s new daily and weekly initial UI claimant dashboard shows the age, education, race/ethnicity, sex and the occupations of individuals requesting benefits by region. In the six weeks between mid-March and end of April, three in 10 claimants reported having only a high school diploma, with food and beverage service and retail workers topping the cumulative totals.

North Dakota offers a similar detailed dashboard. And all states can tap into the characteristics of the UI claimants data that is availably monthly from the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) for tracking who is continuing to claim UI benefits.

What does training look like in a pandemic-affected world?

What is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future is the need for virtual opportunities to receive public workforce services, and the need for assistance to jobseekers in finding online training programs. Just as education has quickly moved to remote and virtual learning, so too have there been rapid shifts to fully online workforce service experiences. Accessing virtual services during American Job Center and library closures is integral and needed, but workforce practitioners should also be mindful of improving access for individuals who may not have a computer, reliable home internet access, or the digital skills to participate in online services.

Jobseekers who need to access training services will be looking to online solutions as well. Participants in Adult and Dislocated Worker programs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) must use their states’  Eligible Training Provider Lists (ETPL) may find appropriate training. States collect a core set of data from training providers about their programs, including delivery method such as classroom, online or hybrid.

In some states – Indiana, Michigan, and Texas are examples – customers can already sort training options by delivery method, making it easy to find online options. Given that online, e-learning, or distance learning programs currently account for about one in seven training programs on ETPLs across the country, states offering online search functionality by delivery type will allow customers to filter retraining opportunities that they may be able to access more quickly from home. 

Connecting Workforce Data to Policy

In addition to the role of data in informing workforce development practice, good data also plays an integral role in supporting and advocating for effective policies. To that end, workforce and education advocates can take action now to make sure that policymakers understand what is needed for an effective pandemic response. In particular, advocates can ask policymakers to:

  • Increase funding for federal workforce training programs to address worker reskilling now.
    • A recent NSC blog analyzed the House Democrats’ Relaunching American’s Workforce Act (RAWA) to invest $15.6 billion in supplemental funding for workforce and education services, including under WIOA, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, among other programs.
    • This act will further assist states in responding to the accelerated retraining needs due to COVID-19 that could not be accounted for in ETA’s recently announced WIOA Title I and III state allocations for Program Year 2020. While these programs got a modest overall increase in national funding, allocations to states are based, in part, on labor force and unemployment trends from 2019.
    • Workforce and education organizations can sign on now to a letter supporting the RAWA bill as part of the next COVID relief package to be taken up by the full Congress.
    • Support a Twenty-First Century Reemployment Accord to better prepare the US economy and workers for future shocks.