COVID-19 and the recent wave of demonstrations have served up raw reminders that the American labor market is lined with deep, inequitable fissures. Even as the month of May saw the astoundingly high jobless rate lower by 1.4% overall, the Black community saw its unemployment rate tick up another 0.1%, all while grappling with higher infection and mortality rates from the pandemic.
In response to these social and economic challenges, there have been high-profile calls for jobs programs to stem the tide of unemployment while also addressing the acute needs of the moment. Examples include mobilizing a “Corona Corps,” a salaried, Peace Corps-inspired effort that tackles the pandemic while fostering national unity, and a Tutoring Corps that could put recent college graduates to work supporting K–12 learners.
But America’s deep fissures may require something more expansive, and more permanent. If the pandemic’s effects are more akin to that of the Great Depression, a New Deal-like jobs guarantee program may be in order, in which paid, public sector jobs are available for all who want them. For those unsure about college, such a program could provide community-oriented work experiences that inform educational pursuits, improve long-term employability, and increase savings—all reducing the financial risk of pursuing higher education.
However, a jobs guarantee program will be more interruptive than additive unless individuals can seamlessly earn postsecondary credit for the skills they master on the job, offsetting the risks of working in lieu of learning and vice versa. Simply introducing this program in parallel to or on top of the current postsecondary system of time-based credentials and prestige-based hiring would exacerbate opportunity costs for those who can least afford them.
Thankfully, another system based on competency-based education (CBE) and skills-based hiring is expanding and maturing to the point where integrating a jobs guarantee program into it would both address short-term employment risks and spur a more equitable economic recovery.
A storied but unfulfilled history
The jobs guarantee concept is far from new.
In the early 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to spearhead a recovery from the Great Depression through a series of reforms and massive jobs programs known as the New Deal. Together, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), two of the better known programs, employed roughly 16 million individuals.
The concept of a jobs guarantee was also a major cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph included in the program for the 1963 March on Washington the call for a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers…on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Coretta Scott King carried the cause onwards and is credited with legally mandating that the Federal Reserve pursue full employment as part of its dual mission.
Recent presidential candidates revisited the idea in the years before the pandemic, and researchers generated extensive proposals for how a federally-funded, locally-administered jobs guarantee program would work in the modern economy. These call for public sector employment that complements the private sector rather than competing with it, and for expanding the definition of what constitutes valuable work. Many proposals focus on job roles that serve community and environmental needs but that get short shrift in the private sector.
To create lasting change that not only employs tens of millions but also promotes social mobility at scale, such proposals need to connect experience, learning, and credentials.
The need for a new value network
While the outlook for the impact of jobs guarantee programs on GDP and inflation is positive, the program will have an underwhelming impact if it is simply grafted onto the existing education infrastructure.
The current value network (the context in which firms establish a cost structure and operations, working with suppliers and channel partners to sustainably serve customers) holds the four-year degree as both the goal of education and the golden ticket into the labor market. The road to that ticket, however, has been out of reach for 68% of the Black community and 79% of Latinx learners. The 40% of college-goers that don’t finish stop out for reasons including broken credit transfer systems, insufficient support, and financial struggles. Further, learners that defer tend to fall through the cracks for good.
This network just doesn’t naturally accommodate “non-traditional” postsecondary journeys, of which a jobs guarantee would be a part.
A skills-based value network, however, would fit a jobs guarantee like a glove. CBE providers speak the language of skills, assessing mastery rather than time spent learning. In many cases, these providers work closely with employers to identify relevant, in-demand skills and build learning experiences around those skills. CBE providers could grant credit for skills that learners master while working, shortening time-to-credential. They could also leverage their experience interfacing with employers to help map competencies and learning experiences into public sector job roles.
A jobs guarantee program could also facilitate a broader transition to skills-based hiring. First, well-designed public sector jobs would offer opportunities to develop many of the workforce-relevant soft skills that an academic environment fails to engrain. But also, where hiring managers prefer candidates that supplement their college education with inequitably-distributed internships, a jobs guarantee program makes available opportunities to supplement learning and skills with universally available work experiences.
Finally, for the 30% of high school graduates who don’t pursue college right away, a jobs guarantee program embedded into a skills-based value network provides a lower-risk on-ramp to postsecondary education in at least two ways. Because the work is paid, learners can reduce how much they borrow—especially if the government incentivizes directing those earnings towards lifelong learning savings accounts. Further, public sector work opportunities can expose high school graduates to real-world problems that then inform their future pursuits, fostering a deeper sense of purpose in seeking postsecondary and professional experiences.
To imagine how this might look, consider Michelle, a hypothetical high school graduate who doesn’t go to college. She finds employment through her local jobs guarantee program helping build pedestrian areas and bike lanes, a job in which CBE providers identified skills relevant for urban planning. Michelle discovers an interest in urban planning along the way and, realizing her dream jobs require further education, pursues a program. She borrows less thanks to her saved earnings and earns her degree more quickly thanks to the credits she earned on the job.
Not as far-fetched as it may seem
Although the US has nothing like a jobs guarantee program right now, it does have programs that exhibit a similar dynamic. For example, military service opportunities are broadly available, provide livable wages, and offer benefits that include helping pay for college. Many postsecondary institutions have created admissions pipelines tailor-made for the armed forces, including offering credit for relevant in-field experience. Of course, the military offers all of this in exchange for risking your life.
Crippling unemployment rates, unprecedented labor market volatility, and equity- and pandemic-gated access to college degrees all call for bold solutions that increase learners’ optionality while absorbing the systemic risks of America’s fractured landscape. A jobs guarantee embedded in the growing value network of CBE providers and skills-based hiring could render an uncertain future more navigable for all.