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.”

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