Coronavirus has shown us that we need a WPA 2.0. Here's how to make it work: Tech CEO

A WPA 2.0 would have a transformative impact on our economy moving forward

America needs a comprehensive national strategy to reverse the steep, fall-off-the-cliff dive the economy took during the forced national shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Unfortunately, the numerous ideas for jump-starting our economy -- both those implemented and those that have not been acted upon -- seem to hold the pre-COVID-19 economy in high regard and rely on approaches that worked in 1965.

At that time, manufacturing and industrial jobs effectively created most of the pathways into the middle class.

Today, we have a winner-take-all economy where growth happens in very different kinds of professional trajectories, from tech and health care to skilled trades and entrepreneurship.

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What we need now is a WPA 2.0 – a comprehensive jobs creation partnership between the federal government, private industries, and job training experts that focuses on these economy-driving trajectories.

Seventy-years years ago, mired in the Great Depression, the government created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA enlisted millions of job-seekers to construct public buildings, roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure essentials.

Similarly, a WPA 2.0 would go a long way in tackling the current massive physical infrastructure problems in the country. But it would also chip away at the equally massive backlog of technology work needed by the public sector.

It would also strengthen our health care sector in a way that ultimately reduces costs for all.

More importantly, it would carve enduring pathways that more Americans could traverse in the months and years to come in our fast-changing world.

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I’m not proposing such a plan in a vacuum. I’ve worked to increase job opportunity and economic mobility as an entrepreneur, a White House economic policy advisor, and a Harvard economics and law fellow.

What we need now is a WPA 2.0 – a comprehensive jobs creation partnership between the federal government, private industries, and job training experts that focuses on these economy-driving trajectories. 

It’s from those perspectives and as the founder of two technology companies that directly impact hiring, career trajectories and the labor market, that I’m confident that a WPA 2.0 would have a transformative impact on our economy moving forward.

Consider that the most robust sectors of our current economy -- technology and health care -- have long-standing vacancies, and the worker shortages are only expected to grow over the next decade.

For example, health care occupations are projected to grow 14 percent, adding 1.9 million jobs by 2028.

On the technology front, jobs are projected to grow 12 percent in that same time, adding to the current gap of one million open tech jobs in the U.S. today.

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Moreover, employment shortages are increasing in work that can never be outsourced, such as skilled construction and tradesman fields.

According to the Associated General Contractors of America, 81 percent of construction firms have reported difficulty in filling salaried and hourly craft positions, and 65 percent of firms estimate that it will be as difficult or more difficult to hire over the next 12 months.

All these jobs pay mid-to-high five figures to start, and the vast majority do not require a four-year-university education. So it’s time our policies absorb this reality and focus on aligning people to these opportunities.

The key is matching each individual to the opportunity where he or she can thrive. To do so, we must solve two problems.

The first is reducing implicit bias, both malicious and unconscious,in the way people find and are hired into a job.

This problem is largely what economists call an “informational asymmetry”—that I, as an individual, do not know where I will thrive, and a hiring manager does not know how to determine whether or not I will thrive in my job.

The second issue is the dearth of effective and affordable pathways that enable individuals to transition into roles where they can grow and find dignity.

Up until now, the match-making between a job candidate and a training route or an employer has been ineffectively circular.

People are herded into careers based on academics, advice and interest.

The jobs individuals know about are those introduced to them in school or by friends, leading those from neighborhoods and schools with fewer opportunities to be stuck more often in low paying, dead end jobs.

In far too many instances, they select and pay for educational and training pathways that may or may not lead to jobs.

Employers are equally in the dark, selecting job candidates based on academic records, keywords in resumes and intuition—an intuition to hire those resembling themselves, which inevitably limits economic mobility for so many Americans.

Thankfully, the technology exists today to build a WPA 2.0 platform that will match individuals to jobs and apprenticeships where the individual is “predicted for success.”

Machine learning can develop more accurate predictions of the likelihood a given individual will thrive in a role, career or industry without relying on the ineffective and problematic signals of credentials, class, race, and gender.

That technology, in turn, makes it possible for each individual to identify an effective pathway toward immediate and quality pay in a field with prospects for long-term career success.

This isn’t unproven, aspirational speculation. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past two decades.

In 2001, I created a company called Catalyte, which identifies individuals, with no prior experience, who will be in the top echelon of software engineers after completing an apprenticeship/training period.

Two generations ago, they might have been working in manufacturing or industry.

Today, among the thousands of technology professionals who have been identified by Catalyte’s platform -- half of whom identified as having no education beyond high school -- the average annual income within five years is $98,000.

Since 2015, another company I created, Arena, has been applying similar technology to identify health care workers predicted for successful performance and retention.

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Arena is deployed into health care providers whose applicants represent 17 percent of the entire health care labor market -- about 3.5 million unique individuals per year. Of particular note, the technology reduces implicit bias based on race and gender in hiring by 92-99 percent.

While these experiences are based on private-sector jobs and careers, the ideas extrapolate out to the economy as a whole.

In fact, instead of just writing checks to our recently unemployed and sending no-strings-attached money to businesses, our government can redeploy funds to launch the first cohort to benefit from this new WPA 2.0 platform.

We would still be providing support to unemployed Americans but doing so in the context of a job or apprenticeship, and a pathway into a life and a career that provides happiness, dignity, and security.

Of great importance, we do not need to spend any more than we are currently spending, we simply need to spend it differently.

In fact, at the current funding level, we can hire every single person who is out of work and who will not return to their prior job.

In doing so, we will transform our economy to one that changes the very stagnant or worse income trend lines we were traversing pre-COVID, while solving our real underlying problems—the problems of broken pathways preventing too many of us from achieving the American Dream.

Michael Rosenbaum, a former White House economist and Harvard fellow, is founder and CEO of Arena, a company that uses predictive analytics to improve workforce recruitment, retention, and diversity.

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