The Sunrise Movement holds a protest outside the White House demanding action on climate change and green jobs in Washington, June 4, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
The economic recovery from the pandemic is at a critical juncture. More than nine million people still are looking for work and job growth last month was well below projections.
Meanwhile businesses are arguing that they cannot fill jobs. Pundits and experts try to explain the paradox: continuing fears over Covid; lack of affordable child care; the safety net of unemployment benefits and stimulus checks making wages from low-paying jobs less necessary.
The challenges in returning to work, however, may be symptomatic of a deeper problem: there may be jobs, but there aren’t enough good jobs.
Too many of the 106 million workers without four-year degrees, particularly our lowest-wage workers, have been stuck for too long in jobs that don’t pay well, don’t offer job security, and don’t provide real opportunities for advancement.
Without federal investments that spur growth of good jobs, there simply are not enough jobs that draw on the potential of these workers.
Workers know they have the ability to do a lot more but have not been hired into better jobs nevertheless because they don’t have the traditional credentials demanded by employers. The labor market undervalues, if not outright dismisses, their capabilities because they simply lack the right degree or job history.
This dynamic has posed particularly severe challenges for women and Black and Latinx workers. As of February, over 60% of unemployed workers who previously held low- and mid-wage roles haven’t graduated from a four-year college—nearly 5.8 million workers. Of this group, 45% are women and 36%, or around two million, are Black and Latinx. And there are still 1.8 million fewer women in the labor force than before the pandemic.
We have released new research that shows that these workers have the skills necessary for higher-wage jobs and their access to these jobs is key to closing America’s equity gap. But neither of those goals will be met unless the Federal government invests in creating infrastructure and green jobs to generate more good jobs and the private sector engages as well.
In studying the job histories of 29 million people, across more than 800 occupations, we found that many workers from low-wage roles have developed the experience necessary to succeed in higher-skilled, good jobs and to continue to progress to better roles in our changing digital economy.
In particular, we identified 77 occupations that are proven springboards to economic advancement – which we call “Gateway” roles – that could create meaningful participation in economic growth for these workers.
These Gateways provide the opportunity for workers to apply skills honed in one type of job to similarly-skilled, higher-paying jobs in another field with greater potential for advancement. We have found that many workers without four year-degrees have transitioned successfully from retail sales jobs to manufacturing production roles or customer support specialists.
Customer service representatives are especially well-qualified for certain entry-level IT support roles. Many of these jobs are rooted in America’s infrastructure, from the transport and warehouse sector, to manufacturing and machine tool programmers, to electrical repair, to commercial and industrial equipment. These Gateway jobs have the promise to reward the talents of millions of people.
Our analysis forecasts that the U.S. economy’s current trajectory likely will create nearly half a million of these Gateway jobs in the next year. However, that falls far short of the 5.8 million jobs we need to help qualified workers, particularly women, Black, and Latinx workers, who previously had low-wage jobs move up the economic ladder.
This is where federal action is critical. Federal investments in infrastructure and green technology can have a dramatic effect on the creation and acceleration of Gateway jobs, and in supporting workers to build skills as necessary and transition to these roles.
Research shows this type of investment could catalyze almost 2.7 million jobs over the next ten years. Infrastructure and green technology investments have the potential to produce a number of good-paying jobs in the short-term, while also supporting research, development, and entrepreneurial ventures that will grow these jobs in the long term.
After the Great Recession of 2009, we failed to create upward mobility for workers without four-year degrees, particularly for women, Black, and Latinx workers. We didn’t translate investments into good jobs for long-term success. For far too many people, the available jobs were low-wage with few benefits or security, hurting America’s competitiveness while exacerbating racial and gender inequities. We cannot afford to make that mistake again.
Zoë Baird is president and CEO of the Markle Foundation, Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League and Brad Smith is president of Microsoft.