Accelerate Recovery: Prioritize Equity when Supporting Upskilling

Monday, August 17, 2020
Monica Maldonado

Nationwide, state economies are feeling the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially reflected in the staggering job losses that surpass even the Great Depression rates of unemployment. In fact, nearly 50 million people have lost their jobs since mid-March. And while the unemployment rate has fallen from the pandemic’s high of 14.7 percent in April to 11.1 percent in June, the road to economic recovery is still long. 

Unfortunately, pandemic job losses have disproportionately impacted people of color and those with lower levels of education. In order to fully recover from the economic downturn, states and communities need to prioritize increasing postsecondary attainment—including a particular focus on upskilling adults who have been displaced from their jobs. 

As ESG President & CEO Matt Gandal recently wrote, equitable and strong economic recovery requires state leadership and innovation with CARES Act dollars, in addition to leveraging other sources of federal, state, private, and philanthropic funding to invest in strategies that propel everyone forward. Given the value of postsecondary education for both job loss protection and meeting labor-market demands for a more skilled workforce, state leaders can lean in on postsecondary training initiatives to ensure that those hit the hardest by unemployment, such as people of color and those with lower educational attainment levels, can bounce back. 

Here are a few recommendations for how to do so, as well as examples of how states and communities are leveraging their federal stimulus funds to support recovery for people of color and low-income individuals.  

Remove financial barriers to adult upskilling. 

State leaders should remove financial barriers to upskilling in order to enable adults and other targeted groups to take advantage of these opportunities. Missouri, for example, launched the Return Strong initiative and utilized CARES Act and GEER funds to help its residents bounce back stronger than ever. Through this, they have allocated $6.7 million to upskill workers displaced by COVID-19 through job training, $2 million for training in high-demand fields, such as information technology, and $1 million to support and expand the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which provides adults with funding to obtain a high-demand certificate, degree, or industry-recognized credential.

Likewise, the governor of Oklahoma provided a grant to Tri County Tech for their Skills to Rebuild initiative by partnering with a public career and technology education center to use $1 million of GEER funds to award tuition-free grants for adults who complete accelerated programs in fields deemed in high-demand for their region. This incentivizes adults to return to school for training in positions that benefit the local economy and removes the financial burden of doing so.

Direct funding to communities with the greatest need.

Timely recovery requires investing in human capital and doing so equitably to ensure no one gets left behind. Ensuring that funding is directed at communities who have the greatest need should be a key strategy in economic recovery efforts. A few states are already doing this. 

In Illinois, for instance, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the governor partnered to invest $4.7 million of federal and state funds to expand apprenticeship training grants to those from underserved communities in fields that are in high demand. This came as a result of an internal statewide analysis of their apprenticeship and work-based learning programs that revealed disparities in who has access to these opportunities – oftentimes affecting women and people of color. The governor also directed $3 million in GEER funding to specifically support the enrollment and retention of underrepresented students across the state’s four-year institutions. Illinois Central College has also tapped into GEER funding from the governor to target supports for Black students by covering tuition costs, paying outstanding student debt, and providing mentorship and job placement supports.

Support the whole adult learner.

Beyond helping adults with lower educational attainment and people of color help afford postsecondary training, leaders have taken on the challenge of addressing other logistical barriers that could potentially keep these groups from benefiting from upskilling initiatives.

In the case of local leadership, the San Antonio City Council approved an economic recovery plan that includes $70 million toward workforce development with an emphasis on high-demand job training, with an additional $10 million to cover childcare costs for parents pursuing training and/or workforce opportunities. The goal would provide living stipends for 15,000 workers getting retrained. This is similar to a plan rolled out by Bexar County, where they are providing $450 weekly living stipends to 5,000 workers while they receive training in the health care and information technology fields at Alamo Colleges. Both are funded through the CARES Act. San Antonio’s workforce development strategy ensures logistical hurdles to pursuing additional training are not a barrier by offering wraparound support that not only covers childcare and pay while training on the job, but also provides participants case management and career guidance.

Colorado has taken a similar approach. Through nearly $5 million from the Employment Recovery Dislocated Workers Grant, the state will help to cover all expenses associated with upskilling training, including personal protective equipment, dependent care, transportation assistance, books and supplies, and more. 

The economic downturn resulting from COVID-19, while painful for all, has impacted some communities more than others. Our economy cannot afford inequitable strategies for recovery. We cannot leave behind our most vulnerable populations, including people of color and adults without any postsecondary education. Working together to bring everyone forward through equity-focused strategies will be key to state economies returning stronger than ever.