The Big Fix: Rethinking Education and Workforce

By all accounts, our country needs a trillion dollars or more to rebuild crumbling highways, bridges, and other infrastructure. We also need a plan to shore up education and training after high school— but this is one area we can improve with the resources already there.

Last month the Trump administration, as part of a proposed major federal reorganization, called for merging the education and labor departments. The idea is to eliminate overlapping regulation, something both parties have sought to do over the years.

Merging those agencies may sound like the U.S. Department of Talent that I proposed in a book three years ago. There’s a big difference, though. Just looking for savings in a consolidation would end up combining unrelated elements of the two agencies. More than half of the Labor Department’s workforce, for example, enforces laws relating to worker safety and other protections. Those efforts deserve their own focus. Education, training, and talent development, meanwhile, are entirely separate functions – and clearly a national priority.

A better plan would be to use a new federal department to take key talent-related functions of some existing agencies and put them under a new entity more sharply focused on ensuring America has a workforce with the knowledge and skills we need.

This is a bigger issue than combining what appear to be like functions. Just as we talk about boosting the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need to strengthen our infrastructure for building talent as a competitive bridge to the growing global economy.

Only 47 percent of Americans have credentials beyond high school diplomas, but 65 percent of jobs will require that education within the next decade. Even now, there are 6.6 million job openings and related labor shortages across the country.

A new Department of Talent could address this by consolidating the parts of three agencies that belong together but now are operating with little in the way of common goals and coordination:

  • The entire Department of Education with its focus on supporting access to a high-quality educational system—one designed to develop and deploy a diverse pool of talent for the nation;
  • The U.S. Labor Department’s Education and Training Administration, administering programs and funds that help grow the workforce and support dislocated workers; and,
  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ talent and recruitment functions under the Department of Homeland Security, including programs that connect companies in need of talent with skilled immigrants and help foreign-born talent navigate the immigration process.

In their current forms, each of these entities plays a distinct and important role in talent cultivation. Bundled together, they could develop new strategies for linking outcomes-focused K-12 and higher education; locally managed workforce development programs; and highly focused global recruitment strategies. By doing this, we would create a powerful vehicle for tackling the nation’s talent challenge head-on.

If those were the only benefits, a better coordinated federal effort would be valuable enough. But fulfilling America’s talent potential offers even greater returns in the form of eliminating unfair and unequal educational outcomes among African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians.

Lumina places equity at the center of our work as a matter of fairness – and because we know that the best of a nation’s ambitions will acknowledge the disparities created by historic, persistent factors affecting our education system. A Department of Talent would unify the sometimes fractured, disconnected efforts of agencies acting at cross purposes, which have slowed efforts to close attainment gaps.

A unified federal approach also recognizes the millions of adults and others who disproportionately receive non-degree credentials, valuing their efforts equally in the ecosystem of postsecondary learning and work.  

Let’s admit that shepherding an effort like this through the political crosswinds of the day seems unlikely. But as news coverage touches on education, labor, and talent development, we should seize the moment.

For everyone concerned about the country’s economic future and place in the world, we should demand better.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and author of “America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce.”