Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Thanks for clicking. This week’s issue looks at the debate over labor shortages and job training, as well as digital credentials in the D.C. metro, and the Gates’ value commission report. (To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.)

A ‘False Binary’

The shockingly bad April jobs report is fueling the partisan spat over whether labor shortages exist. The political stakes are high, with $4T in proposed spending by the Biden administration on jobs, education, and infrastructure.

If labor supply woes and the skills gap aren’t real, should the feds spend many billions more on job training and postsecondary education?

That question misses the point, says Annelies Goger, an economic geographer at the Brookings Institution. The nation doesn’t have a labor shortage, she says. But it certainly has an opportunity gap and a dysfunctional labor market.

“The debate about whether the problem is a lack of jobs or a lack of skills presents a false binary,” says Goger. “Frankly I find it elitist, because it is disconnected from the pain points that people actually experience in the labor market.”

Americans change jobs frequently in today’s economy, and are likely to get a job through someone they know. Workers often aren’t aware of available employment options, she says, or how to market themselves for a new field.

Employers tend to describe the problem as a failure of the individual rather than of systems, says Goger. And without examining how their own recruitment, hiring, and management practices may be biased or invalid, businesses too often fail to see talent when it shows up in different forms and to treat talent development as a cost rather than an investment.

“If we value equity and innovation, we need to stop making people jump through confusing hoops to get some career counseling, connect with mentors, or find support like transportation,” says Goger, who authored a report last year on how to help Americans who have lost jobs during the pandemic transition to new and better employment opportunities.

Federal job training expenditures proposed by the White House would bring the United States up to roughly the average of what other industrialized nations spend on labor-market adjustment programs, according to Goger, and a relatively small share of that spending goes to training.

“We need to focus on meeting people where they are and designing around what they need to have success in the labor market,” she says, “whether that’s work experience, training, some coaching, or child care.”

An Interest Gap?

The new jobs report and other data are showing signs of potential hiring problems in some industries.

Caveats abound and the “dynamics are funny right now,” Ben Casselman, an economics and business reporter for The New York Times, said on Twitter. But he noted that manufacturers cut jobs last month, while retail and transportation and warehousing also saw dips. And wages are spiking in leisure and hospitality, a possible sign of labor shortages.

Part of the problem could be that the jobs being created are different from the ones lost in the recession, says Andrew Hanson, director of research at the Strada Education Network. “That requires workers to adapt—to reskill and transition to the fields where those jobs are being created.”

Strada’s Public Viewpoint survey last year found that workers who are looking to change fields tend not to be interested in transitioning to several sectors with strong demand or emerging labor shortages. Only 8 percent of potential career switchers were interested in leisure/hospitality, for example, with similarly low interest in health care (8 percent), retail (6 percent), and manufacturing (2 percent). 

Hanson says:

“Although a lot of workers are interested in reskilling and transitioning to a new field, they often aren’t interested in moving into where the jobs are. So part of what’s going on here is what I would call an ‘interest gap’ in where workers want to work and the kind of work that’s actually available.

Restaurants in particular have drawn attention for being unable to fill open positions.

As a recent Washington Post article suggested, some of this phenomenon may be due to laid-off restaurant workers rethinking their career and life priorities—a luxury typically afforded to wealthy, WFH knowledge-economy workers. And a growing body of anecdotes and polling shows many unemployed and lower-income Americans also are now taking a hard look at their next steps, albeit under more stressful circumstances.

The Kicker:

“People feel burned. Or burned out. Experiencing this made people more aware of what they were missing out on,” Michael Beltran, a Miami-based chef and high-end restaurateur, told the WaPo. “This gave them a kick in the [rear end] to do something different, to find their real life.”

Michelle Vásquez, a senior at Trinity Washington University

Going Big in the Beltway

Labor supply is a challenge for the technology industry in greater Washington, D.C. The booming tech hub is projected to add more than 130,000 digital tech jobs during the next five years. And these gigs tend to pay well, with a median salary of $104K.

To help keep up with this demand, and with an eye toward equity, the Greater Washington Partnership in 2018 began working with employers and universities to embed relevant digital tech skills into higher education programs.

Students who attend 20 universities in the region now can complete a set of courses to earn a digital tech credential through the Capital Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business (CoLAB). Completers get a digital badge, one they can reasonably expect employers to recognize.

That’s because 17 companies have signed on to the project, including biggies like Amazon, Northrop Grumman, T. Rowe Price, and MedStar Health. Students who earn the credential also get access to a portal for internships, job recruitment opportunities, and professional development webinars.

“The demand in this region is so significant for this talent that there is plenty of work to go around, for all these students,” says Jeanne Contardo, vice president and managing director of the Capital CoLAB.

The project is focused on scale through standardization. Contardo says the goal is to “tune” hiring demand by getting the region’s major tech employers to agree on the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) needed in a variety of digital fields. The CoLAB shares those competencies with universities, which map them into their curricula and create the digital tech badge.

“We pay attention to what our employers say they need when it comes to hiring digital tech talent and we signal that out to our education partners,” says Contardo.

The CoLAB’s goal is to engage 45,000 students and adult learners in digital tech pathways by 2025, with at least half of participating students from underrepresented populations.

Trinity Washington University this week announced it was joining the CoLAB project and seeking to widen digital tech career opportunities for women and students of color. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of undergraduates who attend the small women’s liberal arts university are eligible to receive federal Pell Grants, according to federal data. And 86 percent of its students are either Black (56 percent) or Latina (30 percent).

Michelle Vásquez, a senior at Trinity who is majoring in political science and business administration, says she’s excited about the university’s new minor in data analytics and the career and networking opportunities through CoLAB. “After completing a few internships in politics and business, I understood the importance of knowing how to use data visualization, coding language, and more,” she says.

In addition to the credential program, CoLAB works with K-12 schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions across five regional jurisdictions to build aligned digital tech pathways that begin in high school.

Most of the in-demand digital tech roles around the Beltway require a four-year degree, says Contardo. This is driven in part by federal contracting requirements as well as the relatively high share of workers in the region with college degrees.

But the landscape is changing rapidly, says Contardo.

The Kicker:

“I expect in the coming years, as employers move toward skills-based hiring in a more comprehensive way and as federal contracting requirements shift, that the CoLAB will evolve its partnerships to reflect this employer demand, certainly adding more community college partners and potentially others who aren’t even on the horizon,” she says.

Value in Higher Education

A broad commission of experts supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy has worked for the past two years to create a new way to define value in higher education.

The resulting hefty report the commission released this week included this conceptual definition:

“Students experience postsecondary value when provided equitable access and support to complete quality, affordable credentials that offer economic mobility and prepare them to advance racial and economic justice in our society.”

Among the data included in the report was an analysis of median earnings for recent graduates of the University of Texas system, a broad and diverse sample. The below chart, for example, shows income gaps across racial and ethnic lines growing over time—including that 15 years after leaving college, white students who didn’t complete a credential earned roughly the same annual amount ($60,400) as did Latino graduates ($60,700).

Federal Policy Implications

For more equitable education and employment outcomes, says Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, “It’s time to break down the artificial policy walls between workforce and higher education.”

Here’s some of what Peller proposes:

  1. Make it easier for individuals with some college and no degree to return to higher education when needed, by lifting Pell lifetime eligibility and resetting satisfactory academic progress requirements.
  2. Count all high-quality learning, including learning on the job, by increasing support for competency-based education, prior learning assessments, and better transfer of credit.
  3. Increase employer incentives like the tax exclusion for educational program assistance.

Open Tabs

Equity Gaps

The U.S. loses roughly $1T annually because of racial and economic injustice in higher education, Anthony Carnevale and Kathryn Peltier Campbell from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce wrote in an essay for Inside Higher Ed. The estimated $956 billion in potential gains from an improved postsecondary system include increases in tax revenue, higher spending, and reduced expenditures related to public health, criminal justice, and public assistance.

Black women health-care workers tended to miss out on a full year of career advancement during the pandemic while their white colleagues advanced into better jobs, according to new research from the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University. “This may mean that the field has taken several steps backwards in diversifying its well-paying jobs, and that Black health-care workers may face even more difficulties advancing in the coming years.”

The unemployment rate in April for U.S. women (5.6 percent) was slightly lower than it was for men (6.1 percent), Reason reported, citing federal data for Americans over age 20. And while women’s labor force participation rate was lower than men’s, their participation rate has recovered almost as much.

Community Colleges

By extending existing infrastructure, a quarter of U.S. community colleges could be made accessible by public transit, according to a new analysis from the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which said community college students spend an average of $1,840 per year on transportation. The report found that 57 percent of the main campuses of two-year colleges have public transit stops within walking distance.

Guild Education expanded its reach in the two-year college sector through a new partnership with Rio Salado College, an Arizona-based online community college. Guild, a B-Corp, works with large employers to administer education and upskilling programs to their employees.

Calbright College, California’s new statewide online community college, graduated just 12 students in its first year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing a state audit. Calbright recently released a goal to enroll 5,000 students in 2023, with three-quarters of those students from focus populations.


A new assessment from the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) measures essential college and career readiness skills of high school and college students. The 60-minute formative assessment features real-world, complex decision environments where students must analyze and synthesize data, and propose solutions to resolve conflicts.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week — PF @paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.