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The U.S. needs to invest in training incumbent workers for an inclusive economic recovery

  ·   By Katie Brown and Katie Spiker
The U.S. needs to invest in training incumbent workers for an inclusive economic recovery

The pandemic has caused a major economic shift for businesses and workers. Countless companies have had to quickly upskill their workers, equipping them with the skills they need to pivot to digital or remote services.

As a result, the importance of efficiently and effectively training and onboarding workers with the right skills for the job has become an increasingly critical.

National Skills Coalition's latest report: It's Incumbent on U.S.: Leveraging federal policy to maximize investment in incumbent worker training and business’ pipeline development offers recommendations to Congress on how to address this pressing issue including:

  1. Creating a new Federal Incumbent Worker Training Fund under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to provide dedicated resources to states to fund partnerships between employers, education and training providers, and other stakeholders.

  2. Creating new "21st Century Extension Partnerships," aligning workforce and economic development strategies. These partnerships should provide technical assistance to small and medium-sized employers, coordinate funded training for businesses in the same industry, and efficiently encourage companies to adopt latest industry methods and technologies.

  3. Leveraging changes to the tax code to empower private investment in worker training for both new hires and the upskilling of existing workers.

Investing in incumbent workers is a critical layoff aversion strategy for small and mid-sized companies at a time of historic worker displacement and can be a path to better equity in the workforce.

The problem: Current economic and workforce development programs fail to support business engagement in training new or existing workers

Small and mid-sized business leaders often lack the tools necessary to develop a pipeline of skilled workers or upskill incumbent workers. Existing policies, however, fail to address this need.

The U.S. drastically underinvests in workforce policy meant to upskill and train workers already on the job, despite this being an effective and efficient way to connect learning to career pathways. Where we do invest public dollars, polices often lack alignment between economic and workforce development necessary to bring together programs meant to spur business innovation with those designed to help workers benefit from and contribute to that innovation. And finally, public policy fails to scale up or adequately leverage existing private investments in incumbent workers in a way that could maximize what businesses are already spending on their employees.

The solution: Policy change to maximize public and private investment in incumbent workers

Congress has the chance to reverse course and implement key policy changes that would support businesses and workers now and as our nation adjusts to the new realities of the post-pandemic world. Ideally, these policy changes should connect small and mid-sized businesses— particularly those in COVID-19 impacted industries—to public resources and to other companies in the same industry to scale solutions. And Congress must leverage private and public investments to maximize upskilling opportunities for both new and incumbent workers.

Read the full report today for more details on these recommendations.

Posted In: Federal Funding, Tax Policies, Work Based Learning, Future of Work

California launches innovative distance education pilot for TANF, SNAP participants

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
California launches innovative distance education pilot for TANF, SNAP participants

A new policy development in California reflects one of National Skills Coalition’s key recommendations for an inclusive economic recovery.  In July, state officials launched a project providing digital upskilling opportunities for state residents who currently receive certain public benefits. The pilot is providing online learning and coaching assistance through the Cell-Ed mobile learning platform.

Participants in the pilot project come from one of several programs overseen by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). They include CalFresh, the state’s SNAP Employment and Training program; CalWorks, its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program; and its Refugee Resettlement Program.

The new California policy reflects a step toward NSC’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery policy agenda item #6, Digital access and learning for all working people at home and on the job. In particular, NSC has called for eliminating barriers by making high-quality, equitable, and inclusive digital learning available to all workers. 

National Skills Coalition spoke with Jennifer Hernandez of CDSS and Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami of Cell-Ed to learn more about the initiative.

Why take this approach now?

“We wanted to provide a mechanism to support low-income Californians who want to use this pandemic time to build their skills for future employment,” says Jennifer Hernandez of CDSS. The state understands that families are facing numerous economic and social stressors, she adds, and they don’t see this effort as a panacea. Still, it’s an important piece of the puzzle, especially as many in-person education and training services are limited or even unavailable due to public health restrictions.

The state’s contract with the Cell-Ed mobile learning platform also achieves two other goals: It frees up county welfare office staff from some of the onerous participation tracking that they would otherwise need to handle for public assistance participants, and it provides county officials with an easy, built-in tool for sharing updates about office hours or other program logistics with their clients.

How does the mobile learning platform work?

Cell-Ed is a voluntary program that enables adults to acquire essential skills via distance learning on a mobile device. Courses are pre-recorded and developed by content experts with expertise in adult education and mobile learning. Participants can access mini-lessons through text messages (if they have a low-tech feature phone), telephone audio, or a more robust application (if they have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer).

Participants can also access support from bilingual coaches, who are available at any time via live chat through the application or through text messaging. Coaches can assist participants step-by-step through course content and are available for any questions.

Available courses include:

  • English on the Go (offered from Levels 1 through 6)
    • Spanish-to-English bridging
    • Basic Literacy:
      • Math for Daily Life
      • Reading & Writing
      • Social Studies
      • Work Ready Skills
      • U.S. Citizenship & Civics Courses
      • Covid-19 Best Practices and Preventative Measures (offered in English, Spanish, and French, with more languages to come)

What support is the state providing to local officials?

“This is an optional program from the state level: We are encouraging county welfare offices to take advantage of it, but it’s not mandatory,” says Hernandez. The CDSS partnership with Cell-Ed is providing full access for free to all counties through June 2021. Counties can enroll an unlimited number of eligible participants. To date, 37 of the state’s 58 counties have signed on, representing a broad diversity of geographic regions.

CDSS has taken several steps to support wide adoption of the pilot:

  • Issuing a July 1 policy guidance document to local officials. This All-County Information Notice, ACIN I-55-20, was titled Distance Learning Via Cell-Ed For California Work Opportunity And Responsibility To Kids (CalWORKs), Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA), CalFresh Employment and Training (E&T), and Trafficking and Crime Victims Assistance Program (TCVAP) Participants
  • Providing professional development to county officials, staff, and community-based providers on effective use of the Cell-Ed platform
  • Identifying a modest amount of additional state funding that can be used to purchase loaner devices for participants who lack a smartphone or computer

Why choose Cell-Ed as a partner?

The organization had a proven track record of working with adult learners who mirrored CDSS’ participants, says Hernandez. That includes people who are low-income, have often worked in the service industry or other entry-level jobs, and may have limited foundational skills (such as reading, math, spoken English, or digital literacy).

In addition, says Cell Ed’s Rothenberg-Aalami, her company offers a nimble pedagogy that can be adapted for smart phones, tablet computers, and even lower-tech flip phones. This allows participants to engage in education even if they cannot afford a full-featured computer or if they are sharing a smartphone or computer with multiple other family members – a common situation in families with K-12 students who are learning at home during the pandemic.

Another consideration was the ability to provide connections from Cell-Ed online learning to other adult education and workforce development opportunities. “We want to make sure that as SNAP and TANF recipients build their skills, they can easily transition to high school equivalency classes or earn industry-recognized credentials,” says Hernandez. “To do that, we have to be really intentional about how Cell-Ed connects to the existing infrastructure of providers and services funded by WIOA and California Adult Education Program dollars.”

(For more on Cell-Ed’s model, see NSC’s recent Amplifying Impact brief on innovative programs that combine English language and digital skill building.)

What should policymakers and advocates keep in mind when considering similar efforts?

  • “Make sure you have a clear, specific understanding of how your agency and participants will benefit,” says Hernandez. She points out that Cell-Ed’s platform provides a customized data dashboard and other tools that can help public officials understand who is logging in to the tool, how it is being used, and whether participants are meeting federal or state “work participation rate” metrics or similar mandates.

  • In addition to the learning modules themselves, Hernandez adds, the platform’s survey and communications tools have simplified county offices’ task of getting timely updates out to participants. She recommends that policymakers think expansively about the types of tools they need and whether a particular platform can provide them.


  • Making participation voluntary for both local officials and individual program participants is vital. “We wanted this to be seen as an appealing opportunity, not another ‘must do,’” says Hernandez. “Deferring to local officials allowed them to determine what they had the bandwidth to take on. And making the program optional for participants ensured that we weren’t layering on another expectation during a pandemic when families are facing numerous other demands.”


  • “Don’t limit your thinking to the mobile tool itself,” adds Rothenberg-Aalami. “CDSS was smart in that they specifically contracted with Cell-Ed to include live coaches to provide technical assistance, encouragement, and professional development. This allowed public officials and staff to get the practical support they needed to understand the tool themselves, and encourage their participants to try it out.” Without that support, she adds, it would be hard to scale up adoption.


  • Perhaps most importantly: “If policymakers and service providers can’t envision the end user, they end up designing for themselves,” explains Rothenberg-Aalami. In other words, if decisionmakers are accustomed to having affordable high-speed internet access at home and work, as well as an up-to-date digital device with an unlimited data plan, they may end up selecting distance learning options that are inaccessible to the people they serve.* It’s crucial to have partners at the table who have on-the-ground expertise, whether as service providers or participants themselves.

*(In contrast, another recent example identified by NSC is a mobile-learning pilot in a different location that failed to specify that its learning platform should be accessible to people with limited data plans. The result was a graphics-heavy application that hogged so much data that many potential users weren’t able to take advantage of it.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability.

  ·   By Andy Van Kleunen,
Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability.

As I draft this message with National Skills Coalition’s Board of Directors, I keep returning to this fact: The emotional, physical, and economic toll that the COVID-19 health pandemic has taken on our country can’t be overstated. Our coalition stands with the working people and local businesses who have been most impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

The deeply inequitable consequences of this economic crisis for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities of color, for immigrants, and for people with a high school diploma or less lay bare our nation’s history. A history of structural racism that kills people of color and robs them of their livelihood. A history of public policies that undermine the aspirations of working people who want to train for a better job. A history of economic recovery strategies that pick winners and losers rather than creating real pathways to prosperity for everyone.

But today, as the NSC Board, we come to you in a spirit of hope, responsibility, and determination with the release of Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery: A Call for Action, Equity, and Accountability. This call to action offers a vision for the role that skills policy can play in an inclusive recovery. A recovery in which workers and businesses most impacted by this recession, as well as workers previously held back by structural barriers of discrimination or opportunity, are empowered to equitably participate in and benefit from economic expansion and restructuring.

Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery will guide our coalition’s work over the next two years. And over the coming months, we will share actionable legislative agendas and in-depth policy solutions that achieve the goals we put before you today. Solutions that state and federal policymakers can run with. Solutions based on the experience and expertise of our member businesses, labor-management partnerships, community organizations, community colleges, and education and workforce experts. Solutions that will require your advocacy to make them real.

America cannot train its way out of an economic crisis, nor can skills policy shoulder alone the weight of a more inclusive economy. Inclusive skills policy on its own will not dismantle structural racism, bring economic security to every worker, or ignite sustainable growth for every small business. A web of policies and practices contributes to these goals. But skills policy has an essential role to play and must be part of our nation’s path forward.

So it’s with a sense of hope, responsibility, and determination that we ask you to walk with us on this path and shape this journey.

In solidarity,

Andy Van Kleunen, CEO and Board member, along with the rest of the NSC Board

Scott Paul (Chair)

Alma Salazar (Vice Chair)

Jessica Fraser (Secretary)

Alice Pritchard (Treasurer)

Daniel Bustillo

Brenda Dann-Messier

Melinda Mack

Ned McCulloch

Girard Melancon

Rory O'Sullivan

Grant Shmelzer

Abby Snay

Van Ton-Quinlivan

Portia Wu

Posted In: Future of Work, Work Based Learning, Career and Technical Education, Higher Education Access, Federal Funding, Work-Based Learning, Postsecondary Education, Skills and Supportive Services, Upskilling

Workforce Update: A Balancing Act for America's Working Women

  ·   By Rachel Vilsack,
Workforce Update: A Balancing Act for America's Working Women

As schools across the country are back in session in largely remote or hybrid learning settings, coupled parents and single parents once again need to meet the education and care needs of their school-age children. Women – whether furloughed from their jobs or on telework status due to the pandemic – contributed an average of 12.8 hours per week to home-based teaching activities with children in late April.

As states reopen and jobs in sectors with high concentrations of women workers are returning, working mothers will see increased pressure while trying to balance work, childcare, and school schedules that are contingent on when and if the coronavirus spreads. And the situation may be dire for permanently displaced women - especially low-income workers - who need to prioritize housing and food security needs of their families above reentering the job market.   

An inclusive economic recovery must prioritize investments in education and training tied to labor market demand – and the necessary support services – to connect displaced women to the upskilling needed to fully compete in the economy’s restructuring and expansion.  

Just the facts, ma’am 

One story that emerged during the Great Recession was the disproportional economic impact on men, as job losses battered the manufacturing and construction sectors, which traditionally employ male-dominated occupations. The current recession is trending in the opposite direction, a phenomena not seen in economic downturns in the United States. When many state stay-at-home orders temporarily closed businesses in April 2020, women (age 20 and over) saw a peak unemployment rate at 15.5 percent, compared to 13.0 percent for men, on a seasonally adjusted basis. While unemployment rates for both men and women have trended downwards in recent months, the impact of this recession – and subsequent recovery – for women will be closely studied for years to come. 

Here are some workforce trends experienced by women during this pandemic and recession: 

  • Unemployment rates for Black women and Latino women continue to trend higher than white women. As of July, rates for Black and Latino women (age 20 and over) were 14.1 and 14.4 percent, respectively, compared to a 10.3 percent unemployment rate for white women. Research shows that Latino women are heavily represented in sectors that were most impacted by pandemic shutdowns.

  • A similar trend exists for foreign born women, whose monthly unemployment rates are trending four percentage points higher than native born women – 14.7 percent versus 10.7 percent in July. Of note here is the disparity between foreign born men and women: the unemployment rate for foreign born men (10.7 percent) is just one percentage point higher than the rate for native born men (9.5 percent).

  • While some jobs held by women have retuned – most notably in the leisure and hospitality sector – working hours and income, by extension, have not. One in four women worked part-time in July but wanted full-time work. Prior to the pandemic this rate was one in ten.

  • Overall, women make up about 39 percent of frontline workers and are highly concentrated in health care practitioner and support occupations. Women also hold a large percentage of cashier positions in retail and grocery stores. It is especially important to note that workers of color hold a majority share of the health care support jobs, and nearly one in four health care support workers are single mothers.

  • Women (41 percent) were more likely than men (31 percent) to have teleworked because of the pandemic in May, the first month this data point was available. By July, these percentages had fallen and narrowed: 29 percent for women and 24 percent for men. In general, workers with higher levels of education have a greater ability to telework during this pandemic.

  • For parents, working from home also requires balancing childcare needs – nearly 40 percent of workers who teleworked because of the pandemic in May had children under 18. While the data do not allow us insight into who is providing extra childcare, women, on average, spend more hours per day caring for children. And recent analysis by the Census Bureau points to three in ten women aged 25 to 44 who were not working in mid-July due to COVID-19 related childcare issues.

  • Short- and long-term dislocation of women from jobs will also impact their future career trajectories and earnings. One research study estimates that for women the average earnings loss during a recession amounts to 3.3 years of pre-displacement earnings. 

We’re facing an unprecedented confluence of events that has resulted in a disproportionate impact on job loss among occupations that employ more women. This occupational segregation, particularly for women of color in lower earning positions, is an important racial equity lens to bring to skills investments. Some sectors where women are majority job holders have low potential for automation, while also lacking lack skill development and career advancement opportunities.

Take action 

September is national Workforce Development Month, a recognition that the education, training, and career advancement of our workforce allows the United States to remain competitive in an international economy. This year, the need for skills investments is critical to helping those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and to jumpstart the halting recovery for women

Skill policies that broaden the infrastructure talent pipeline by supporting workers’ success (BUILDS Act) and sector partnerships that center apprenticeship and other work-based learning strategies (PARTNERS Act) can help all workers, especially women, succeed in 21st century careers. And access to wrap-around services, including high-quality childcare, are essential for young mothers to fully participate in retraining opportunities.

Make your voice heard: investments in our public workforce system must uplift the voices of displaced women workers so they can be a full part of an inclusive economic recovery.

3 key policies to support young parents via workforce development

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
3 key policies to support young parents via workforce development

A new brief from National Skills Coalition highlights three touchstones for policymakers to keep in mind when developing interventions to support young parents. The brief, Young Parents and Workforce Development in a Post-Pandemic World, is available now.

There are approximately 4.5 million American parents who are between the ages of 18-24.  Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many young parents faced significant challenges in balancing their jobs and childrearing responsibilities with efforts to build additional skills and advance in their careers.

As policymakers and workforce advocates adapt o a pandemic-affected world, ensuring that skill-building policies are intentionally inclusive of this population can help to ensure a level playing field for all of America’s workers, regardless of their age or parental status.

A holistic approach to workforce

While NSC’s recommended policies center on workforce development and education, research shows that it is vital for them to also include the ancillary supports — such as childcare, tuition, and transportation assistance — that are necessary for young parents to attain their education and career goals.

As policymakers take action to support young parents and other constituents who are scrambling to find their economic footing, three touchstones will be crucial to incorporate. In each case, advocates and policymakers should be mindful that the enactment of strong policies should be supported with appropriate amounts of funding, guidance, and technical assistance to enable high-quality implementation at the state and local level.

Policy touchstones to inform action

  • Invest in accelerated pathways. Strategies such as Integrated Education and Training, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), and guided pathways have demonstrated effectiveness in helping individuals with skill gaps, which include many young parents, to quickly prepare for in-demand jobs.

  • Respond to evolving digital inclusion needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid existing discrepancies in home broadband internet access, digital device access, and digital literacy skills. People of color are disproportionately affected by these disparities, as are parents. Given that many young parents are people of color, it is important to ensure that new policies to support education and workforce development in a pandemic-affected world help to remedy rather than magnify equity gaps.

  • Provide high-quality childcare. It’s so straightforward a solution that it may seem difficult to believe that most workforce programs don’t fund childcare for their participants. But many programs do not have the resources to provide such services, thus leaving young parents burdened with figuring out their own childcare arrangements.  Policymakers and skills advocates should create and expand investments in high-quality childcare programs for workforce development participants, including young parents.

Learn more about each of these touchstones in the full Young Parents and Workforce Development in a Post-Pandemic World report.

Posted In: Training Policy in Brief, Work Based Learning, Future of Work