Lifelong learning is a critical component of building a strong, competitive workforce, even more so now as COVID-19 continues to upend the workforce. As millions of unemployed Americans look for ways back into the labor market, employers are putting new emphasis on changing job skills, competencies, and credentials.

A new report says that the nation’s cities are in a unique position—and have considerable assets—to help create an education and workforce system to support this need for lifelong learning.

“The economy of the 20th century created an opportunity for people with a high school degree to potentially work at one company for 30 to 40 years, and to have the security and stability that came from that type of employer-employee relationship. The reality that we’re seeing in the 21st century is that people are going to need to reskill or upskill over the course of their career,” explains Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and co-author of the report.

“It’s not just on the individual to figure out how to do that themselves,” Fitzpayne tells WorkingNation. “There needs to be a government policy and employers that helping individuals navigate this new type of environment. Most of the responsibility, thus far, has really been shouldered at the federal and state levels in terms of programs that are providing training or access to education or funding for colleges.”

In its Building a Lifelong Learning System: A Roadmap for Cities report, the Future of Work Initiative and the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, which funded the report, argue that local governments are best equipped to offer workers the education and workforce development they need to be competitive throughout their careers.

“Cities have been centers of growth and innovation in large part due to the unique resources that exist in cities, from world-class universities and community colleges to a diverse mix of employers,” Fitzpayne adds.

Alastair Fitzpayne, Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative (Photo: Aspen Institute)

“Cities are dynamic places and have been dynamic in terms of the ability to encourage growth and innovation. And in many cases, they’ve been the beneficiary of companies just wanting to come to cities because that’s where many people who are well-educated tend to want to live and work,” he tells WorkingNation.

At the same time, he says, there has been a kind of bifurcated economy in these cities “where you’ve seen growth of high-wage jobs, growth of low-wage jobs, but a reduction in the number of middle-class jobs.”

Fitzpayne says cities are now confronting the challenges around creating good middle-class jobs that can serve as the cornerstone of the local economy. “Jobs increasingly are requiring something beyond a high school degree. I think that’s going to require cities to take a different, a more hands-on approach.”

Kristen Titus, Cognizant U.S. Foundation (Photo: Cognizant U.S. Foundation)

Kristen Titus, the executive director for Cognizant U.S. Foundation, concurs and says cities are up to the task. “As we navigate both the changing nature of work and the economic impacts brought on by COVID-19, cities have the opportunity to leverage the collective power of employers, education institutions, policymakers, and local organizations to build a resilient, competitive workforce,” says Titus.

How to Build an Inclusive, Lifelong Learning System

“The current crisis accelerated ongoing inequities and changes in the workforce system. This research helps shine a light on the path forward,” adds Titus.

“COVID-19 has highlighted a lot of the concerns that we had about people who are being left behind to work in a low-wage job where there almost no opportunity for economic mobility without additional supports,” says Fitzpayne. “We saw an opportunity in our research to make recommendations to our cities on how they could play a more forceful role again, creating a more equitable and inclusive economy that provides opportunity for all.”

The report’s researchers spent the past year speaking with city leaders, educators, industry executives, nonprofits and training providers, and other policymakers in three cities—Chicago, Phoenix, and Hartford, Connecticut. From these conversations, the report offers concrete steps “mayors and city leaders can take to build integrated and effective lifelong learnings systems.”

Among the recommendations:

  • Create deputy mayor position and establish an advisory council for lifelong learning
  • Build digital platform for jobs and training and expand career counseling
  • Support a more equitable education and training system

Fitzpayne says the deputy mayor concept is something they are already seeing working. “Chicago has done this in some respects. (The city) identified the need to have somebody in the mayor’s office coordinating these various assets that exist in cities, and they created a kind of a workforce director. What we’re recommending in our report is to look at that example and elevate that role within the mayor’s office.”

The report says creating a digital jobs and training platform will better connect jobseekers with local employers and a look at skills they need and how to get them for a good job and career. “Once operational, all city residents would be able to create an account and view available job opportunities, training options, and information about employers that operate in the city. In addition, they could post their resumes on the platform in order to allow employers in the city to identify possible job candidates.”

In order to create a more equitable recovery, the report says it is important to implement a more flexible training system, including more flexible options from the employers themselves. “Providing access to wraparound services, like child care, transportation, stable and secure housing, food assistance, mental health services, and sufficient income while training, is critical to ensuring that workers without savings or family support can complete training programs.”

The report goes into details on these and other recommendations. Fitzpayne says the report is meant to be a guide for every stakeholder in a local community, from the local city and business leaders to educators to the philanthropic community, because they can all play an important role in addressing these challenges.

Coming up on Thursday, December 3, the Future of Work Initiative and Cognizant U.S. Foundation will host a virtual event to further explore key findings from the report.

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