The trade agreement is historic, but it alone is not enough. It should be linked to additional legislation that ensures America’s workforce is much better prepared to compete in an increasingly open and hypercompetitive world economy.
All these factors argue for using the occasion of the TPP not just to expand trade but to deepen efforts to prepare American workers and many U.S. institutions for the third industrial revolution, which is well underway already.
What we need is omnibus legislation called something like “The 21st-Century Workforce Preparedness Act.” Here’s what it might include:
Part I would outline the context and the goals, beginning with a description of a world in which global trade — meaning goods, services, ideas, data, etc. — has reached deep into the domestic fabric, affecting virtually every American life. The goal would be to create the world’s most competitive workforce, to include the entire U.S. working population in that effort, and to build a labor pool that is better educated, endowed with the highest level of skills the market is demanding, and characterized by men and women whose capabilities are flexible and resilient to changing circumstances. This section would identify other national policies that this act is designed to complement, such as fiscal policy, monetary policy, and health care. It would also contain a 10-year sunset provision.
Part II of such legislation could focus on ways to enhance workforce education and training, including a stronger emphasis on streamlining delivery systems for learning, vigorously promoting science and technology throughout the entire school system, and new platforms to match skills and opportunities for new jobs. This section should focus on encouraging and rewarding innovative, future-oriented experiments at every level of the education system.
Part III could include funding for infrastructure of all kinds — from roads to electrical grids, from environmental retrofitting to ubiquitous broadband — to enhance the economy’s resilience, including the establishment of an infrastructure bank financed primarily by private markets. It should commission a national study on the infrastructure that the United States will need for 2025 to give a sense of proportion to the awesome challenge we are dealing with and are so far from being able to handle now.
Part IV could address a stronger social safety net for workers, including unemployment insurance and limited compensation for wage loss, all tied to a worker’s enrollment in preapproved education and training programs that themselves are subject to more rigorous standards than is currently the case. It should mandate a White House conference early in the next administration to envision how the entire American social safety net, which derives from the mid-1900s, needs to be fundamentally rethought for the digital age.
Part V could provide grants to states and localities that are experimenting with innovative programs relating to job creation. Special attention would be paid to programs that are mounted on the part of educational institutions, corporations, municipalities, and states all working together as a team. The use of new technology to educate and train workers and monitor and evaluate results should be emphasized as well. Attention should also be paid to something the United States usually ignores: programs that work abroad.
Part VI would focus on grants to researchers who are looking into the changing nature of work in America and its implications for U.S. citizens aiming for well-paying jobs in the global economy. Although no one can have a reliable crystal ball for the future, the attempt to better understand the workforce implications of certain industries of the future, from carbon capture to personalized health care, with all the benefits of big data and more cross-disciplinary work, is crucial.