Mar 10, 2021 - Economy & Business

The long road to putting America back to work

Illustration of a buffering briefcase.
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

One year into the pandemic, more than 10 million Americans are still out of work — and many of the jobs they lost won't even exist when this is over.

The big picture: Putting the country back to work will require vast amounts of retraining and career shifting, as former bartenders learn to code and former cruise ship workers look for jobs at data centers. The U.S. is still unprepared to take that on at scale.

What's happening: Job training and reskilling will be an essential part of America's post-pandemic bounce back, but neither of the two COVID relief bills passed during the last year earmarked any money for it.

  • "We just don’t do this. We’re not a training nation," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "It’s a systemic failure when you compare us to other nations."

By the numbers: The pandemic's disruption of work will push around 17 million U.S. workers to find new occupations by 2030, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report.

  • Even before the pandemic, 70% of employers reported having trouble filling roles because of a skills gap in the labor force, per Bloomberg.
  • After the pandemic, high-skilled jobs, like web developers and epidemiologists, are expected to boom. And low-skilled ones, like restaurant hosts, bartenders and ticket agents are projected to bust.

"We knew artificial intelligence was going to devastate jobs, but, frankly, I thought that was five or seven years away," says Plinio Ayala, CEO of the job training company Per Scholas.

  • "The pandemic accelerated that. The number of jobs that existed before the pandemic will not be the same number after, and most of those jobs were occupied by people of color and women."
  • "I’m concerned about a real uneven recovery."

All of this points to an urgent need for the U.S. government and companies to invest in retraining the workforce, but job training remains underfunded at the federal level. And it's a patchwork system in the private sector.

  • Add to that the fact that many of the organizations that have short-term adult education courses and training programs are getting hit by the pandemic. "The community colleges are crashing," Carnevale says.

But, but, but: The reskilling crisis has not yet gotten much attention in Washington. Says Carnevale, "I doubt anybody would go to the floor and vote against training right now, but there is no prominent bill."

What to watch: On the campaign trail, Biden called for a $50 billion federal investment in workforce training. If such a sizable investment becomes a reality, it could help millions of Americans switch careers post-pandemic.

Go deeper