I want to commend Vice President Joe Biden and the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute for focusing on the defining economic challenge of our time—how to best position American workers to thrive when the forces of automation, digitization, globalization are rapidly changing the very nature of work. As Vice President Biden has said, “we must build a future that puts work first.”
American workers are resilient and the most innovative in the world, but many are understandably afraid and anxious about what the future holds. Automation allows us to build more with fewer workers, and new technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence could eliminate untold numbers of middle class jobs in the years ahead. Since the Great Recession, millions of new jobs have been created in our economy in the service, hospitality, and healthcare sectors, but many of these are low-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, our education system and workforce training system has failed to keep pace with the changing economy. As result, there is a significant skills gap—from the trades to manufacturing to computer science—where many Americans lack the skills to compete for jobs that are open now and that will be created in the decades to come. All told, we have more than 6 million job openings across our economy even as some 7 million Americans are unemployed and looking for work.
With the world changing this quickly, we cannot know what the future will look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now. But we can put in place a system that truly prepares Americans of all ages to succeed in a competitive 21st century economy. Neither government nor the private sector can do this alone. Discussions like those hosted by former Vice President Biden at the University of Delaware bring us closer to what our nation desperately needs—a comprehensive, long-term strategy to help more Americans acquire the skills, abilities and support they need to secure good-paying middle-class jobs and the opportunity to thrive.
With the U.S. producing too few graduates in science, technology, math, and engineering, we need a greater focus on STEM education at all levels. With enrollment in community colleges declining, we need to make it easier for more young people to obtain associate’s degrees.
Rather than cutting federal workforce training, we should double down on job-driven programs with a proven record of success, including apprenticeships. In place of the decades-old Trade Adjustment Assistance program that often fails to provide displaced workers with the support they need and prepare them for today’s jobs, a more comprehensive approach—including support for life-long, affordable learning—would help workers adjust to powerful changes in our economy, improve their skills, and facilitate their ability to move between jobs and across sectors throughout their careers. A comprehensive workforce strategy is even more imperative given the fact that U.S. government spending on training is lower as a percentage of our economy than all but two OECD countries and the U.S. private sector has reduced their spending on training by roughly one-third over the last two decades.
In addition, we must keep investing in public-private partnerships that work, such as the Manufacturing USA network, which strengthens American manufacturing. One example is the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals based at the University of Delaware, which I was proud to announce as Commerce Secretary. The Institute will help bring treatments like cancer drugs to market faster and help train workers with the skills needed to fill the many job openings in the biopharmaceutical field.
Finally, with 55 million Americans working as independent contractors or in the “gig” economy, and with young people likely to change jobs as many as 15 times during their careers, we need to modernize our safety net and social compact—and ensure that healthcare and other benefits are portable.
There is no one silver bullet to solving the challenges before us. Our economy is in the midst of a rapid, profound, and irreversible transformation. We need to modernize our education and workforce system to meet this challenge. Today’s work at the Biden Institute gives me hope that—if all sides are willing to embrace our shared responsibility and work together toward real solutions —we can forge the comprehensive, long-term strategy we need to create greater opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.
Penny Pritzker is the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce (2013-2017). She is also is the founder and Chairman of PSP Capital and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group.
Follow Penny on Twitter @PennyPritzker