How to Build a Post-Pandemic America

The case for a new federal agency to integrate our education system and workforce.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency created in 1935 to address the nation’s then-worst economic catastrophe, is getting a fresh look as we think about how to help millions of Americans left jobless in the pandemic. There’s a good reason for why. During its eight-year tenure, the WPA put more than eight million Americans to work on more than a million projects of public interest. These federal workers built roads and dams and electrified rural communities long-denied that necessity of modern life. Others were put to work creating public spaces, public art, and swelling the ranks of crucial service-sector jobs.

But the recovery challenge today calls for more than just a 21st century WPA. We must go further than jobs alone. Even as we put people to work rebuilding America’s crumbling highways and bridges and increasing staffing in the federal public health corps, this crisis demands we address the full range of human infrastructure needs that will emerge in the coming years. What we need now is an Office of American Advancement.

Like the WPA, the Office of American Advancement would provide federal jobs on important and necessary projects, like expanding rural broadband and escalating clean energy solutions. But this office will have a vision and mission far beyond that. It would coordinate with employers and industry leaders to build the workforce we need in a hyper-competitive global economy. This office, for example, would work on the crucial task of assessing and certifying the learning gained in new federal jobs so that each of these workers can grow their education and build lasting careers.

In short, the mission of this new organization would be to lead and support the full integration of our workforce and education systems. It would match up real-time projects with forward-looking needs and ensure that the knowledge and experience gained from these jobs is properly counted and recognized.

Creating this new federal office would not necessarily mean combining or closing existing agencies. Instead, much like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates the work of the intelligence agencies, the Office of American Advancement would coordinate existing federal workforce and education programs. In doing so we could better leverage and direct investments in developing talent alongside new federally supported work efforts.

Organized into mission directorates, partnership centers, and oversight offices, this new federal presence could serve as the undisputed leader of an extensive workforce and education community. It would be a powerful vehicle for tackling the unemployment crisis head-on while making talent development central to workforce, education, and recruitment policies—increasing strategic focus and efficiency. This interconnected approach would surely increase economic opportunity among Americans who have long been denied it, including low-income residents and people of color, thus boosting the nation’s cultural and social well-being.

This is an audacious plan, but the scope of the challenge—our nation’s working future—demands deliberate and coordinated action. Even with a resumption of economic activity that allows some workers to return to their pre-pandemic jobs, it is certain that millions more will remain out of work. Most of these people hold lower-skill jobs in retail, hospitality, and other fields where there is plenty of reason to think the recovery will be slow and uncertain. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, for example, we believed that many of the lower-skill jobs that were eliminated would come back. But they never did. Of the 11.6 million new jobs the U.S. economy added in the six years after that generational downturn, 11.5 million required education beyond high school.

We don’t know yet exactly what kind of structural shifts in labor markets will emerge from the current crisis and the related acceleration in the use of artificial intelligence and robotics. But there will be many winners and losers. The fact that we can’t predict them right now is precisely why we need an Office of American Advancement. With such an office in place to coordinate talent development, we’d be far better able to plan for—and respond to—these rapid changes in the labor market. It would send an unmistakable message to workers, employers, and global partners and competitors that the U.S. is continuously preparing for the future of human work and all the challenges and opportunities that implies.

The economic crisis is worsening each day, and with it the security of millions of Americans. As we look at solutions that go beyond the short-term plans for economic triage, we can use this time to actually build something better—and get the country back on its feet with a more effective, equitable, and efficient system of training and education than we had before.

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Jamie Merisotis and Jesse O’Connell

Jamie Merisotis is president of Lumina Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” which will be published in October. Jesse O’Connell is the foundation’s Strategy Director for Federal Policy.