Harry Reid and John Boehner The American middle class is eroding. Here's how we can help U.S. workers.

There are more open jobs than unemployed people. It's worth working across the aisle to fill the skills gap.
Image: STEM Video Teleconferencing class
STEM Highlands Ranch high school students use high-tech video conferencing equipment.Andy Cross / Denver Post via Getty Images file
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By Harry Reid and John Boehner

It’s only been a few years, but a lot has changed since the two of us led our respective parties in Congress.

Our political system has become more entrenched in hyperpartisanship, distrust and an inability to find common ground on issues vital to our country’s future. Gridlock has atrophied Congress’ ability to address ever-growing economic, educational and demographic divides that threaten to further erode America’s middle class.

In 2018, for the first time since such record-keeping began, the number of job openings surpassed the number of unemployed Americans.

Meanwhile, American workers face an unprecedented paradox. In today’s economy, we see both millions of vacant jobs and millions of Americans who are either unemployed or have dropped out of the labor market because they lack the skills needed to fill those jobs.

In 2018, for the first time since such record-keeping began, the number of job openings surpassed the number of unemployed Americans. Nearly half of U.S. employers report difficulty filling positions, citing a lack of skills as a key barrier. The ongoing shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy is triggering disruptions across industries and communities.

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As a result, pathways for workers to the middle class are rapidly changing. We believe it’s critical to identify and elevate bipartisan solutions to address this challenge.

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We see three critical areas for reform.

First, the education system needs to take a new approach.

Students must be prepared for a changing economy. According to a Gallup survey, just 34 percent of students at four-year colleges believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the job market.

To better equip students for tomorrow’s workforce, schools need to do a better job teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. A report by the National Association of Manufacturing and consulting firm Deloitte predicts that the U.S. will create 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025, but 2 million will go unfilled because of a lack of skills. Study after study shows the U.S. continues to lag behind our economic competitors in STEM training.

Community colleges, which enroll 42 percent of U.S. undergraduates (and 25 percent of full-time undergraduates), should work in partnership with private-sector employers to make themselves gateways to well-paying jobs. Community college grads who have had a relevant internship are nearly seven times more likely to have a good job waiting at graduation than students with no internships. Four-year colleges must also evolve to support education throughout graduates’ lives.

Second, corporations should helm skills-improvement efforts.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. executives believe corporations should “take the lead” on addressing the skills gap. But while U.S. companies spent nearly $90 billion on training programs in 2018, the gap persists, leaving millions of Americans on the sidelines of the current recovery.

Companies must provide continuous learning opportunities while creating more innovative programs that can both improve workers’ skills and drive growth. As co-chairs of the MGM Public Policy Institute at UNLV, we are working with MGM Resorts and educational leaders to advance those goals. That work includes the MGM College Opportunity Program, a landmark partnership with the Nevada System of Higher Education to provide online education at no cost to all MGM Resorts employees throughout the United States in any field, well beyond hospitality, helping foster community-wide opportunities that support expansive career growth.

As research has shown and public and private entities have determined, post-secondary education is increasingly essential to career development and setting a clearer path to the middle class.

Companies must provide continuous learning opportunities while creating more innovative programs that can both improve workers’ skills and drive growth.

Third, we need to take a hard look at public policies aimed at training workers.

Preparing Americans for the future of work should be a goal for government at all levels. Policymakers should align education reform with workforce needs to ensure students are graduating with the skills they need to find employment. Federal and state job programs must be evaluated to identify which ones work, and how they can reach more workers.

America can have a workforce second to none — but only if government, business and academia unite to give workers the tools needed to succeed. Putting American workers first shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

If a former Democratic Senate Majority Leader and Republican Speaker of the House can see eye to eye, there’s no reason today’s leaders can’t join forces on bipartisan solutions to help workers and unleash the full potential of America’s economy.