Higher Education's Role in a Federal Jobs Bill

April 9, 2020

Another 6.6 million Americans filed unemployment claims last week, the Labor Department reported, bringing the unprecedented total job loss amid the pandemic to 17 million in less than a month.

As federal lawmakers mull another stimulus plan, some are advocating an ambitious jobs bill. Mary Alice McCarthy, for example, calls for a 21st-century version of the Works Progress Administration, which put millions back to work during the Great Depression.

"The WPA employed nearly nine million Americans over its eight-year tenure and is widely credited with bringing unemployment under control during the Great Depression," writes McCarthy, a former official at the Labor and Education Departments during the Obama administration, and currently director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America. "Growing the ranks of the public sector workforce by that number today may not be politically feasible, but a well-crafted federal infrastructure investment that channels money to state and local governments and, through them, to local businesses and nonprofits, could stem the tide of mass unemployment and its many negative effects on individuals, families and communities."

The last recession showed that new jobs typically required higher levels of education, McCarthy said. But many displaced workers were unable to enroll in a college or another postsecondary training program before going back to work.

A new jobs bill could help solve that problem, she wrote.

"A direct federal investment in new jobs could integrate education and training with paid work, by subsidizing apprenticeships or paying the wages of new hires while they attend college," McCarthy said. "Educational investments, including much-needed funding for higher education and federal student aid programs like the Pell Grant, could then be targeted squarely on helping Americans who want to complete a college degree, afford it."



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