WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of National Skills Coalition: Finding Common Ground on Job Growth
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Special Guest

As a longtime observer of the Washington political scene and a “go-to” expert on workforce and education policy issues, Andy Van Kleunen thinks that despite the country’s deep political divisions, it’s possible to make generation-defining investments in education and training to spur major employment growth. “There’s not a lot of partisan divide on investing in the retraining of somebody who’s been laid off and now has to look for a new occupation. We’re talking about 80 to 90 percent approval for greater public investments in those kinds of efforts.” Drawing on lessons learned from previous recovery efforts, Van Kleunen believes more needs to be done this time to make sure economic gains are inclusive from a racial and socio-economic standpoint. The organization he leads, National Skills Coalition, also urges policymakers to follow what they have found to be the most effective formula for increasing skills and growing jobs: let localities and states in the nation’s 300-400 regional economies bring stakeholders together to determine where investments should be made. In this timely conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, Van Kleunen taps into the knowledge gained from his national network of business, education and labor leaders to share the most effective formulas for economic development in this unique political moment.

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Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to Workforce Rx with Futuro Health, where future-focused education, health care and workforce leaders explore new education to work approaches and innovations. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. As the economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains at worrisome levels, the new Biden administration obviously has a major challenge on its hands when it comes to workforce issues. On today’s show, we’re going to hear from a leading national voice in workforce policy to find out what priorities he would like to see the incoming president set.

I’m happy to have Andy Van Kleunen with us, the chief executive officer of National Skills Coalition, which he founded in 2000 in collaboration with leaders from the workforce development and philanthropic communities. He has since led the coalition to become an influential player on behalf of business and labor leaders, community colleges, community-based organizations and leaders from the public workforce system. He is regularly invited to advise Congress, the federal government and state agencies. Thanks so much for being with us today, Andy.

Andy Van Kleunen: Thanks, Van. Great to be here with you.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, you know, I describe the National Skills Coalition as the go-to organization to inform federal policies on skills. That’s just how influential you are. What would you add to this description of the National Skills Coalition?

Andy Van Kleunen: Well, thanks, Van.  You have been a part of the tens of thousands of people that we have relied on, people who are working in labor management partnerships, working with industry at community colleges and community organizations, workforce boards, everybody who is trying to solve this problem of how is it that we can have skilled jobs that are going unfilled and thousands — and now currently millions — of people who are unemployed and are not able to get into those jobs? We created National Skills Coalition based in Washington, but not really to function as a traditional think tank, and that’s not to say that we don’t have thoughtful people on our staff. We have some really smart policy experts. But what we tend to know about policy in terms of what’s effective on the ground is what we learn from the partnerships of the people who are doing this work in real communities with real industries with real business owners and working people to figure out how industry is changing what our education and training policies have right and what they don’t. What are other things besides training that we need to actually help workers both get into a good job and succeed with a local employer over time and advance in an industry into a real career?

So, National Skills Coalition is actually a “network of networks” of different folks who are doing that work. Our traditional national network — and you described a lot of the people who participate in that — are a lot of the education and training providers who have been doing this work in communities around the country. But we also have a state network — our Skills Span Network — which are groups of people who are working specifically within states to figure these issues out. And, you know, the solutions for California are going to be different than the solutions for Alabama or Michigan. We recognize that context means everything when you’re trying to figure out how to solve problems for local workers in the local economy and trying to help those people figure those issues out as they’re talking to state legislators and governors, as well as participating in conversations that we’re having with Congress and presidential administrations.

We also have a business leaders network called Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnerships, and these are mainly small and medium-sized businesses that have been working with these local, publicly-funded institutions so that they can make sure that those institutions are training people to the right specs for how their industries are changing. Those business folks really see that there’s a role to be played in government policy, effective government policy, that is not determining what happens with industry but is working in partnership with industry.

Then finally, we have a  working people network called Voices for Skills and these are people from all over the country who themselves have benefited from investments in their education and training —  both from the investments that their employers have made, as well as what they’ve received through public programs — and they have been talking about what they have found to be particularly useful in improving their lives and the lives of their families, and why they want to be part of the conversation with policymakers moving forward on these issues.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I assume that this network of networks had a role in the new report that you released for the Biden administration and Congress entitled Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery. In this document, you lay out a new agenda for the Biden administration. Can you walk us through some of the key points, Andy?

Andy Van Kleunen: You had mentioned that I’ve been doing this for a little while. So actually, this is the third economic recovery from a recession that our organization has lived through. If you think back to the last big one, which was the 2009 recession, we did a lot of work with the incoming Obama administration and with Congress to try to shape what we thought was going to be necessary for what became the Recovery Act — the big federal investment that was going to help us get out of the “Great Recession.” Now, keep in mind, the unemployment numbers of the Great Recession are about one-third of what we’re currently having under the COVID recession of 2020. But when we worked with that administration and with Congress to figure out what investments could be made — not just to keep unemployed people whole, but also then to help them get back into the labor market — there were some investments in education and training as part of that solution and I think we learned a lot from that recession.

One of the things we learned is we know how the money was spent — the Obama administration was very good about talking about kind of where those investments were happening, in which communities those investments were taking place. But we did not know very much about who actually got jobs coming out of those investments or how many people who, let’s say, were not already working in construction actually got one of those new construction jobs. We have a very different recession now. It’s primarily women, primarily women of color, concentrated in industries like retail and hospitality, some parts of health care. Some of those jobs will come back but a lot of them will not. A lot of the businesses that employed folks who are out of work now — and we have over 20 million people who are receiving unemployment assistance in this country currently and another four and a half million who’ve just completely dropped out of the workforce altogether — many of those jobs are not coming back. Those firms are not reopening. Those industries have already decided that they’re going to operate either at lower scale or with lower numbers of people in the businesses when they do come back online. So, there are going to be a lot of folks who need to find new jobs, new careers, which for many of them is going to require new skills as one of the ways they’re going to get back into the labor market.

So when we were coming up with and talking to all the folks in all of our networks about what is the response that we want to see from the recovery proposals this time around, everyone was very clear: we want to make sure that these are inclusive economic proposals and that we’re being very specific about tracking who it is that is being served and is not being served by those reemployment strategies, including the training that we think will be necessary for some of those folks to get back on their feet. And so principles like: making sure that those who’ve been most impacted by the recession should be among the first that we’re looking to assist through any of our recovery proposals; that we’re looking at some of the particular concerns around structural racism that exists in the labor market, that may even exist in some of our education and training policies, and being very pointed and focused on making sure that we’re addressing any of those things as part of the policies that we’re putting forward; that we want to make sure that local businesses are at the table and figuring out what strategies are the right things for their industry and their particular regions of the country….so having business as a partner; and making sure that we are doing a very good job of keeping track of what the data shows about who’s being served, who’s moving from one industry to another, where could our investments in human capital be more effective, so that two years from now when the economy does eventually come back — and for many people, it’s going to take at least that long — that we can look back on this and say, “all right, we actually targeted our resources much more effectively.” So that’s kind of the grounding principles in the report that we put out.

Then there’s a set of eight different types of policy proposals.  I won’t go through all of them now, but folks can take a look at the report. It’s on our website at www.NationalSkillsCoalition.org. They are policies that range from expanding our safety net programs so that they actually are effectively moving folks into good careers; a total rebooting of reemployment policy in this country — I think what we learned from the past 10 months is that we did not have an unemployment system that was ready to respond to all the various different ways that folks were losing jobs and what’s going to be required to keep them whole until they get back into the workforce; job creation strategies that include investments in training to make sure that those who lost their job are among the first to get those jobs back; drastic expansion in digital literacy and access — the digital literacy deficits and access deficits that we have among working people in this country has just been made very stark and real and we need to address that directly.

Interestingly, we’ve been polling on these policies for the better part of the last half of the presidential election cycle and these all have great support, not just among Democrats but among Republicans and independents as well. So, these are not just good policy, they’re also good politics from the perspective of a Biden administration which is now trying to figure out how to work with potentially divided government to move some things forward.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thanks for reviewing some of these good policies, and I invite the audience to again visit NationalSkillsCoalition.org to get copies of these documents and reports. When we think about public policies, it’s important for resources to back them up. Do you think there will be a major jobs or skills program from the Biden administration, and if so, Andy, where do you think the funds will come from and how will they flow in all likelihood?

Andy Van Kleunen: Yes, that’s a great question always, “how is it that we’re going to pay for this?” I think that the federal government has recognized, both Democrats and Republicans, that the situation in this pandemic and the recession that’s following it was so severe that it was not so much that we need to worry about how we were going to pay for these programs, but to make sure that we didn’t make the mistake that I think a lot of folks figured we made 10 years ago, which is that we didn’t do enough fast enough. So, I don’t think it’s so much a concern at this point about how we’re going to pay for these programs. I think the question is, are we going to target them and make them effective?

One of the things that I think the president-elect would like to have happen before the end of 2020 is to see if Congress could at least do some of the overdue work that needs to be done just on sheer relief. For example, extending the unemployment insurance that’s about to expire, the eviction protections, obviously expanding what we’re doing in terms of COVID testing and health care support and things like that.  If we can get some of those things done, then we can actually start to talk less about relief and more about recovery and I think that’s what the Biden administration wants to get working on come 2021 after Joe Biden has been inaugurated. We think there’s going to be at least two different ways that they’re going to approach that.  One is that they’re going to do some kind of a spending bill and we want to make sure that investments in education and training for working people are part of those proposals, and there’s a number of things that National Skills Coalition is trying to do in that context. The other thing we anticipate is that there’s going to be an infrastructure bill.

On the theme of looking for bipartisan proposals, infrastructure has always been one of those historically bipartisan areas of focus. We just have not done a lot to deliver on it over the past several years. Even President Trump has talked a lot about doing infrastructure, but we’ve never really been able to get a big package across the starting line in Congress. So, we’re hoping that this time around that that’s what’s going to happen. We have a proposal that says if we’re going to spend a trillion or so dollars on infrastructure, we need to make sure that there’s at least $20 billion to $50 billion worth of resources just for the training of people who are currently not working in construction or the utility trades or the energy sector or any of the many other places where we think some of those investments are going to be taking place in an infrastructure bill, to make sure that people who have been laid off because of the pandemic are going to have first shot at some of those jobs. And that’s something that we’ve never seen, not just in prior recovery bills, even in prior transportation bills which is how we typically fund our roads and bridges. We have a highway trust fund that we create in the context of our transportation bills. We want to have a workforce trust fund for the working people that we think should be employed by any of the jobs that are created by some of these infrastructure investments.

So, I think that’s where we’re going to have some debates about how much more Democrats and Republicans are willing to spend together to get the economy back on track. The nice thing about infrastructure is it’s not just going to be helping the people who were employed, but it’s going to be helping our U.S. economy just get back into the 21st century because our infrastructure just lags so many of the other countries we compete with around the world — whether it’s on transportation or energy or even communications infrastructure — and we just need to get back into the game at that level if we want to continue to be one of the most productive economies in the world.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: It’s interesting that you brought up the infrastructure bill as one way of how the funding will flow. It occurred to me that in this recession where you’ve talked about how the unemployment has hit women and women of color in particular, we’ve come to really appreciate the fact that there’s a human capital infrastructure that is required for women in particular to go to work. Eva Sage-Gavin was a guest on a prior podcast, and she talked about a possible “she-cession” — like a recession but for females — and the infrastructure in terms of child care, the infrastructure in terms of schools being up so that women can go to work…I think this has been all underappreciated infrastructure that has really been hit hard in this recession.

Andy Van Kleunen: Absolutely. I think that’s an incredibly important piece. I mean, we’re an organization that works a lot on education and training investments, but there’s other kinds of investments and other kinds of programs that are required for those investments in human capital to pay off. Non-tuition supports — child care, transportation, other kinds of counseling to make sure that people are making the most effective use of the training that they’ve received when they’re on a job search or thinking about moving from one firm to another within their industry — that’s also incredibly important if we’re actually going to get the pay-off that we make in the training that we’ve been providing to folks. Particularly since women are so impacted by this recession, investments in child care and other support services as part of a retraining and reemployment strategy is going to be absolutely essential.

We’re hoping some of the new leadership that’s been mentioned in press reports for the Council of Economic Advisers in the Biden White House, that there are folks there who have been looking at these issues for quite a long time. Heather Boushey from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth has been focusing on this for years, and we’re hoping that that will be a part of how they’re thinking about recovery strategies coming out of the White House next year.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: And this is not to leave the men out as well in this recovery picture when it comes to investment in education and training. I sit on the National Student Clearinghouse, which has the data of who’s enrolling and who’s dropping out, and the men are dropping out of higher education enrollment as well. So, there’s a lot of work to be done to bring everybody back into the economy for sure.

Andy Van Kleunen: We need to make college work better for working people. Absolutely. And I will say that since the president elect has talked a lot about community colleges on the campaign trail, we’re truly hoping that the $50 billion proposal that he’s put forth as part of his platform around community college access will be seen not just as a way for us to improve and make more accessible our higher education system for working people, men and women, in this country but that it’s going to be a key part of their reemployment strategy moving forward for this country. I think community colleges and industries in particular have developed a lot of effective partnerships all over the country. We want to see that replicated and scaled significantly as part of the recovery strategy over the next two years.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Andy, as a longtime observer of, and a player in, the Washington political scene — you mention having seen three recessions in the life of the National Skills Coalition — I wonder what else you are expecting out of the new administration?

Andy Van Kleunen: Well, I think whether we have a 50-50 split or a 52-48 U.S. Senate, it’s still pretty split Senate. It’s still a very divided country. I think the question is going to be will a President Biden be able to use his appeal to try to reach out to both sides of the aisle to move forward some bipartisan efforts? You know, there are things that have passed even in very difficult political times, including the past four years. We had a huge reauthorization of the Career and Technical Education Act at the federal level, the Perkins Act. During the second term of the Obama administration, we had the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. These are two of the larger federal programs that invest in the training and education of working people at both the high school and the adult level.

Those pieces of legislation passed with near unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate. So it wasn’t that there wasn’t bipartisan support, it’s just that they were not considered to be politically important enough to kind of rise to the level of presidential focus. Well, we think now is the time for President Biden to do that and to take these kinds of issues that work with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but even more importantly have great appeal among Republican and Democratic voters out in the broader country. Rather than saying “the bipartisan stuff is the stuff we do quietly on the side while we kind of fight in the open about these other issues, let’s make the bipartisan stuff the big stuff that we do.” Let’s try to win on that and make that a priority over the next year or two.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, we certainly wish the Biden administration all the best in this endeavor. Now, Andy, I’ve heard you talk in front of many audiences and you’ve been very instructive in helping the audience understand what are the levers available to the federal government versus the state government. Could you just give us a tutorial on what’s the best role for federal government to play with regards to investing in workers and skills development, and on the flip side of that question, what role should states play?

Andy Van Kleunen: Well, I think I said it earlier that ultimately, you know, we don’t have one economy in this country. We have 300 or 400 regional economies in this country. Decision-making that is being made about how to most effectively prepare people for local industry, how to help industries grow based on their investments in people…these are very local sets of issues that should be best decided by bringing all the stakeholders together who have something to say about that strategy. So, certainly local firms and industry leaders, the labor unions, community colleges, community organizations, workforce boards and others…those partnerships working together seem to be, in our view, the most effective formula for how it is to actually get investments in human capital to pay off in job growth and prosperity for local workers.

States are the ones that are going to figure out what are the regions in the country where we think there needs to be some investment? What are the leading industries where we think economic growth is going to be taking place within these regions? Where are there industries that are downsizing? Unfortunately, right now, particularly for the next couple of years, even our most effective state innovators in some of these areas are going to be operating at significant budget deficits. That’s just the reality of how this recession is going to play out for them. So, I think what we want to see Washington do is make resources available with some specific expectations of outcomes in terms of who we’re going to serve and which industries are going to be included in this conversation, but then letting states figure out where to designate those resources and bring them together.

I think the other thing that is just a reality is most of our education policy is local and state-driven anyway — locally driven for the K-12 system and state-driven mostly for our higher ed systems — and we think that the more innovative things that are being done in reforming higher education, particularly to make it work more effectively for working people, has been happening at the state level in both Democratic and Republican led states. So, it’s not a partisan issue, but these are states that have decided — from Michigan to California to Indiana to a number of other state — that have been trying to kind of push the envelope on where it is that they can reform some of their post-secondary systems, particularly the community and technical college systems to make them more responsive to the needs of local industry and local workers. And so, in that case, we’re hoping that the feds will actually pay attention to what states are doing when we get around to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the next couple of years. We hope it’s state innovation that will drive some of the conversation in Washington in the 117th Congress.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Andy, you’ve alluded to some of the policies that National Skills Coalition has actually influenced in past years, and these are the policies that should be continued and built upon. You’ve mentioned regions and industries and partnerships and higher education reforms, and that resources should be flowing to reinforce and build upon some of these policies. Are there any others that should be on our radar?

Andy Van Kleunen: Well, Van, because it’s one that you and I talk about a lot, I think that you measure what matters in any set of circumstances and what we do not do a very good job of measuring in this country at the federal or the state level is who is being served by our education investments, nd how many of those education investments are actually improving people’s lives, particularly when it comes to the types of jobs that they’re getting or the opportunities that they have to advance over time toward a long-term career. Part of the challenge around that is sometimes higher education systems don’t like to be held accountable for things like the employment outcomes of their students. But some of it is also because we have a tremendous amount of publicly collected data but it’s all siloed in a bunch of different agencies and a bunch of different programs, which makes it very difficult for policymakers to make reasoned decisions. Unless we look at that entire portfolio and see how all of that adds up — and does it really add up to where we think the labor market is heading and economic growth is heading into the future — we could be spending a lot of money with not a tremendous amount of results.

So, both for efficiency reasons and for equity reasons, I’m really hoping that we see a new interest in data policy and data analysis, both at the federal level as well as in some leading states that have been kind of out front on this for a while, including some work that you were part of in California over the past few years. I’m hoping that because our country has awoken to the fact that there are people who have never really been given a fair shot, often because of racial bias in this country, and that we assume that people have access to education and training that in fact they often do not, or that we ignore the fact that sometimes we make investments in their training that does not necessarily lead to their improved economic outcomes — and all those things are wrong and that we need to be held accountable for that — I’m hoping that that interest in racial equity is now going to drive a new interest, therefore, and a new set of data policies that up until now people have kind of talked about as a nice idea, but have not felt compelled to actually push for them as being a part of how we think about governance in these areas moving forward. So, again, I think it’s going to be better for industry if we’re doing that. I think it’s going to be better for students if we do that, and I think it’s going to be better as a country who’s making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot at a decent life where education and training is going to be part of that solution.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Andy, you stated how divided the country is. What do you think should be different in workforce and job growth policies that can help unite the country specifically? I definitely think your point about data policies is front and center, but what else?

Andy Van Kleunen: To an earlier point, there’s not a lot of political or partisan divide on investing in the skills of somebody who’s working in a minimum wage job so they can move into a higher paying job, or investing in the retraining of somebody who’s been working at a job for 20 years and has been laid off and now has to look for a new occupation. Those are the very things that we do with these kinds of workforce development programs and Republicans and Democrats both support this.  We’re talking about 80 to 90 percent approval for greater public investments, greater public spending in those kinds of efforts. I think our challenge is it doesn’t get on the radar screen in the way that other more controversial issues do.

So, what do we as a country need to do to say, “hey, you know, just because this is something that we all agree on, that doesn’t mean that it’s something that we shouldn’t pay attention to.” Yes, it may not drive a lot of retweets and it may not drive a lot of social media traffic, but the reality is we could actually do huge generation-defining things if we took the agreement around some of these issues and actually start to invest in them at a level that approached what we used to do in this country 50, 60 years ago when we did things like the G.I. Bill or expanded access to college during the 1960s. These were huge nationwide federal investments. They were not all equitable — not everybody had access to them, and so we know that’s not the part that we want to replicate — but the sheer scale of it, that’s something that we should be able to do again and I’m hoping that that’s something that Republicans and Democrats can come together around as opposed to figuring out what they want to fight on for the next two or four years.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, let’s end on a controversial topic. What are your current thoughts on immigration reform, the Dreamers policy and its impact on workforce and the economy, and what should be the role for education and skills development in that policy?

Andy Van Kleunen: That’s a great question, Van. We’ve gotten some encouraging signals from President-elect Biden that within his first 100 days, his intention is to put forward some kind of immigration reform proposal where Dreamers are going to be part of it. We truly hope that that’s the case because this has just been such an essential issue — not just for the young people and the families that are impacted by it directly — but for what it says about we as a country and how we care about folks who have come to this country to make a better life and who have been so much a part of the economic engine in the United States for generations going back.

You know, we did have things, even things like the DREAM Act, which has had in the past bipartisan support. What we thought could have been better about it was figuring out who is deserving of some kind of access to citizenship. There are two things that were included in the DREAM Act: if a young person has either served in the military or if they were pursuing or had achieved a four-year college degree, those are two things about which people thought, “OK, those folks are solid. We should make it easier for them to stay in this country.” And I would say sure, anybody who fits those two descriptions should have a chance. But there’s a lot of other people — a lot of other immigrant young people and adults — who are bringing incredible value to their communities who are not in the military and are not going to go to university any time soon.

We are not making it easy for people who are getting some kind of technical training to fill one of the majority of jobs that we have in this country — jobs that require some kind of training past high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree — that’s the plurality of jobs that we have in virtually any state in this country.  So, we said, “at the very least, we should create a third path under the DREAM Act for folks who are pursuing that way to become part of our skilled workforce.” And so that has now been adopted. There seems to be bipartisan agreement that if there’s a new version of the DREAM Act that gets reintroduced in the next Congress, that that third pathway is going to be included as one of the ways that can qualify someone for DREAM Act status. So we’re hoping if there is a comprehensive immigration bill up for discussion in the 117th Congress, that those kinds of investments in education and training are seen as just as important a part of the discussion as other things around legal protection and family reunification and other things that we all know are incredibly essential. If the education and training thing could also be part of the package, we think it’s actually going to make it easier for more people to achieve some level of success in completing what’s going to be required for some citizenship or naturalization attainment over time.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, I’m sure our audience would agree with me that we all feel better with you and your team at work at the national level. Thank you very much, Andy, not only for being with us today but for all the work that you continue to do for the country.

Andy Van Kleunen: Thanks, Van. I love having these conversations with you and I really am impressed by all the work that you’re doing, not just on this podcast, but with Futuro Health, so just keep up the great work and keep us looped in.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Thank you. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you’ll join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.