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U.S. Chamber calls for governments to fund rapid training programs

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said Tuesday that a broad-based economic recovery in 2021 depends on reskilling and supporting workers. The usually conservative Chamber is embracing a radical shift on skills policy. “Our lawmakers should fund rapid training programs to connect the unemployed with jobs in new sectors,” Donohue said in a State of American Business address. 

Employers should take a lead in designing these programs, Donohue said, but said the benefits to workers would be clear-cut: “If we do this right and do it quickly, we will improve the living standard for millions of Americans.”

Trade unions agree, but insist the federal government thinks big. “We can’t think about (it) employer by employer,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union. Six million fast food and care workers “are living in poverty and have irregular schedules,” leaving them without access to lifelong learning opportunities in the current system, she said. 

“Imagine a system where the company, the government and the workers together thought about how to unlock those four million people, and train them to do the work that’s emerging in the future,” Henry said. Singapore’s citizens don’t have to imagine it: that’s what SkillsFuture, the country’s adult education government agency, delivers. 

Ong Tze Ch’in, who leads the Singaporean program, told POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast that the Singaporean government has built “a national movement about the pursuit of skills mastery and allowing every individual to achieve the maximum potential.”

At the heart of Singapore’s training efforts is a credit offered to every adult in the country, of between $375 and $950, and “absentee payroll,” a system of government funding for up to 90 percent of a worker’s salary covering work-time missed attending training.

Singapore also subsidizes its education providers up to 90 percent of the cost of delivering a course. The courses range from two-day workshops to months-long programs. The original intent was ensuring Singapore’s quick transition to a digital economy. To cope with the additional disruption of Covid-19, the government increased subsidies for mid-career workers and for courses focused on job skills for workers and industries hit hardest by the pandemic such as accommodation and aviation. 

It takes a whole-of-government mindset to implement a comprehensive system like Singapore’s, and also a new outlook on education, Ong said. School and universities aren’t considered the sum of Singapore’s system, they’re “pre-employment training,” he said. It’s a necessary distinction in Ong’s view because working lives are getting longer, and “that education alone no longer sustains you for your entire career, simply because industry cycles are changing so much faster.”

The biggest winners in Singapore’s system are smaller businesses and their workers, which lack the “critical mass and the capacities” to match the training programs of multinational companies, he said. 

Ong, who was Singapore’s director of military intelligence before taking charge of SkillsFuture, advised American policymakers not to delay their efforts. “You don’t grow an army in a day. You grow it over years so that when you need it, you have it.” 

Can the Singapore model scale across the United States?

The key is re-imagining education as a broader set of services beyond school and college, say many labor experts. “Lots of skills workers have, or need, are not about getting more degrees,” said McKinsey Global Institute’s James Manyika.

Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, the Indian company that became famous for encouraging the tech outsourcing boom, told POLITICO that Infosys now runs “the largest corporate training university in the world,” in Bangalore, India. 

Each market has to be treated differently, according to the local skills base, Kumar said. In the U.S. he said he hires based on a student’s capacity to learn, rather than the brand name of their degree. “We’re moving from degrees to skills with our digital apprenticeship program” — which includes “a finishing school infrastructure,” of eight to 10 weeks of tailored training, at a cost of around $20,000 per student.

“We’re hiring from community colleges, and putting them in the apprentice program, so they can move from operations to a data scientist, and from cyber operations to a cyber security consultant. You give them stackable credentials.” Over the next few decades, Kumar believes the changes will be so specific and frequent that individuals won’t be able to manage them on their own. 

P-TECH is a large-scale public-private partnership trying to take on this challenge. Started by IBM in Brooklyn a decade ago, the partnership now operates in 28 countries. 

Joel Duran was part of the first class to graduate from P-TECH’s six-year program in 2017, with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Duran, now 23, landed a technical consultant job working for IBM’s federal government clients, an outcome he said would have been harder to achieve without the structure and safety net provided by P-TECH. 

“From the first day that you started out at P-TECH in ninth grade, you are paired with a mentor,” he told the Global Translations podcast, and take part in regular work placements where “you are depended upon by the business.” With a salary of $14 an hour as a teenager in these work placements, Duran said he also had income to help support his wider family, some of whom immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when Duran was in primary school, and some who remained behind. 

Duran said the skills he’s learned are portable in a fast-moving labor market. Some of his graduating class “took their two-year technical degree and they went on to med school, they went on to be lawyers. I know there was one student who went and studied wildlife.” For Duran, the lasting effect has been on his approach to work. “I’ve picked up the mindset to always keep learning, to show up in a room humble and be able to say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I can get back to you’ and I’m pretty confident that I can learn it.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Heath is the author of Global Translations, POLITICO’s global newsletter and podcast, and previously authored POLITICO’s U.N. Playbook, Brussels Playbook, and Davos Playbook. 


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Davis-Bacon Is Not Racist, and We Need to Protect It

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In 1931, a Republican senator, James Davis of Pennsylvania, and a Republican congressman, Robert Bacon of New York, came together to author legislation requiring local prevailing wages on public works projects. The bill, known as Davis-Bacon, which was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, also a Republican, aimed to fight back against the worst practices of the construction industry and ensure fair wages for those who build our nation.

 Davis-Bacon has been an undeniable success—lifting millions of working people into the middle class, strengthening public-private partnerships and guaranteeing that America’s infrastructure is built by the best-trained, highest-skilled workers in the world.

Yet today, corporate CEOs, Republicans in Congress and right-wing think tanks are attacking Davis-Bacon and the very idea of a prevailing wage. These attacks reached an absurd low in a recent piece by conservative columnist George Will who perpetuated the myth that Davis-Bacon is racist.

“As a matter of historical record, Sen. James J. Davis (R-PA), Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R-NY) and countless others supported the enactment of the Davis-Bacon Act precisely because it would give protection to all workers, regardless of race or ethnicity,” rebutted Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, on the Huffington Post.

“The overwhelming legislative intent of the Act was clear: all construction workers, including minorities, are to be protected from abusive industry practices,” he continued. “Mandating the payment of local, ‘prevailing’ wages on federally-funded construction projects not only stabilized local wage rates and labor standards for local wage earners and local contractors, but also prevented migratory contracting practices which treated African-American workers as exploitable indentured servants.”

The discussion surrounding Davis-Bacon and race is a red herring. The real opposition to this law is being perpetrated by corporate-backed politicians—including bona fide racists like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—who oppose anything that gives more money and power to working people. For decades, these same bad actors have written the economic rules to benefit the wealthiest few at our expense. King and nine Republican co-sponsors have introduced legislation to repeal Davis-Bacon, a number far smaller than the roughly 50 House Republicans who are on record supporting the law. King and his followers simply cannot fathom compensating America‘s working people fairly for the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile, after promising an announcement on Davis-Bacon in mid-April, President Donald Trump has remained silent on the issue.

So the question facing our elected officials is this: Will you continue to come together—Republicans and Democrats—to protect Davis-Bacon and expand prevailing wage laws nationwide? Or will you join those chipping away at the freedom of working men and women to earn a living wage?

We are watching.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.com on June 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schlittner is the AFL-CIO director of speechwriting and publications and co-president of Pride At Work.


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