A Bright Spot for Bipartisanship?

A Bright Spot for Bipartisanship?
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These days, it doesn’t seem like there’s much our politicians agree on. Partisanship in Washington has reached the highest levels in decades. We don’t see eye-to-eye on what sort of health care Americans deserve and who deserves it. Momentum for once-inevitable tax reform appears to have slowed, and plans for a major infrastructure project, where there was early hope for bipartisan collaboration, feel out of reach.

Yet, there’s an odd sort of bipartisan convergence happening in the world of education and workforce development. Because, as the specter of mass technological unemployment heightens concerns that our education and training systems can’t keep up, politicians on both sides of the aisle are taking steps toward action.

The convergence is animated by frustrations with the costs and outputs of higher education; a belief that skills gaps limit growth as the labor market tightens; and a recognition that persistent equity gaps in high-growth fields will exacerbate already troubling levels of economic inequality. Our most recent election focused attention, for both parties, on the importance of creating pathways to new skills – and opportunity – for Americans who feel marginalized by race or gender biases, cut out of local labor markets due to industry shifts or left behind by rapid changes in technology.

And more important, unlike tax reform or health care, the Left and Right have identified not just common problems but also similar solution sets. Even in progressive circles, the White House’s “workforce week” push for apprenticeships has had a certain appeal. Launched with an event at a community college, its rhetoric centered on creating pathways to the “millions of good jobs that lead to great careers” that don’t “require a four-year degree or massive debt.”  

Experts have pointed out the potential for emerging consensus to produce a “kind of bipartisan” workforce “win,” but also raise important questions about the misalignment between White House rhetoric and budget priorities (including massive Perkins and WIOA cuts).

Notwithstanding that critique, the left should be encouraged by the alignment in focus between today’s White House agenda and the Obama Administration’s trade adjustment and TechHire initiatives, or the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to reimagine pathways for “new normal” learners through experimental sites and the shift toward competency-based learning (and hiring).

In Congress, Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Marco Rubio have teamed up to propose a bipartisan alternative to accreditation. Democrats and Republicans introduced legislation in the House to expand employer-provided educational assistance. Additional bipartisan legislation would codify the existence of income-share agreements with the goal of enabling a more innovative, affordable approach to paying for education. Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell have offered legislation to incentivize employers to pursue apprenticeships through the creation of a $5,000 tax credit. Last week, the President signed a rare, unanimous bipartisan bill that makes major changes to the GI Bill.

The push to rethink pathways from education to employment isn’t limited to the public sector. Adobe’s Digital Academy offers underrepresented and minority candidates a sort of 21st-century apprenticeship that pairs training with the experience necessary to start a career in web development. Companies like Chipotle are pioneering new approaches to “education as a benefit” (with companies like Guild Education) to reduce costly churn and create pathways to higher education for frontline workers.

What’s exciting about these and other efforts is that they blur the distinction – and align interests – between educational institutions and employers at a time when an array of new providers are playing a critical role in addressing growing skill and equity gaps.

They open the door to ideas like the Aspen Institute’s “Worker Training Tax Credit,” which provides a framework to stimulate corporate investments in talent development and retention, loan deferment for students enrolled in nontraditional programs or other policy shifts that acknowledge and enable new pathways.

I share concerns about the expansion of student aid to “non-college” providers in the absence of transparent and effective outcome measures, but I’m also encouraged that today’s seeds of bipartisanship reflect the start of a slow but fundamental shift toward a new paradigm where employers will play a growing role as both payers and evaluators of quality and outcomes. Relatively small policy changes will create near-term opportunities for both employers and job-seekers. And, over time, this shift away from historic proxies and policies will move us toward a faster, more fluid, workforce system centered on skill development and assessment, helping us better facilitate economic mobility for all.

Liz Simon is the General Counsel & Vice President of External Affairs at General Assembly and a former Obama Administration official.

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