Editor’s Note: Watch John Hickenlooper answer questions at a CNN Town Hall on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. Hickenlooper, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, is the former governor of Colorado (2011-2019). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
One of the defining experiences of my life came in the mid-1980s. After working for two years as a geologist in Colorado, I lost my job and my career during that long recession. Struggling to find work, some friends and I decided to start a small business in an undeveloped part of Denver in 1988. Two years later, we built a successful brew pub and eventually opened up over a dozen more around the Midwest. This is the essence of the American Dream – in the land of opportunity, if you have a good idea, create a solid plan, and work hard, you should be able to reinvent yourself and get ahead.
But today, new jobs are disproportionately low-wage and low-skill. They are less secure and pay less than before. In our “hour glass” economy, we have large swaths stuck at the bottom, a hollowed out middle, and a top growing with sky-high incomes and wealth.
There are more disruptions coming. Advances in automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, while increasing productivity, will also cause major upheavals to the workforce. Some estimate that as much as a third of the workforce will need to change occupations by 2030 and there is no clear national strategy to respond to the disruption. Both federal and corporate investment in employment and training should be ramping up, yet they’ve dropped dramatically since the 1980s.
I understand the anxiety and fear that comes from disruption. We need to bring people together to develop and invest in a historic effort that addresses the challenges facing the American workforce, to minimize the gap between the skills our people have and the skills a 21st century economy needs. I am calling for a national strategy for the American workforce. America only works when the economy works for everyone, especially for the nearly 70 percent of Americans who will not graduate with a four year college degree.
The American people know there are models that work and can be scaled. While I was the governor in Colorado, we launched Skillful.com, a program for job-seekers seeking to develop their skills, and employers to hire based on those skills. It offers predictive tools so that workers can see tomorrow’s jobs and acquire the skills to get them. For our kids, we created Careerwise, a pilot collaboration with businesses and schools.
The program allows high school students to “earn while they learn” as apprentices in the growing fields of IT, financial services, advanced manufacturing and healthcare. And while college is not the only answer, in Denver, we created the Denver Scholarship Foundation which helps low income and first generation college students to attend and graduate from college.
We created initiatives like the Business Experiential Learning Commission and Colorado Innovation Network to make sure that we were adjusting to changes and growing our future talent ecosystem. This strategic thinking and planning is what helped drive Colorado from 40th in job creation to, according to US News and World Report, the number one economy in the nation these past two years.
A national strategy for the American workforce would mean an investment of historic proportions in skills training and apprenticeships. It would enlist labor unions, good corporate citizens, and civic organizations to join a national effort that ensures people have the skills companies need to drive our economy forward.
We can do this by reimagining the role of the employer where upskilling and reskilling will become a benefit of employment rather than an inadequate government retraining program after someone loses a job.
While some people simply want to villainize the private sector, the fact is that the private sector drives jobs growth; we need to channel the energy and innovation of employers to generate opportunities for the entire labor market.
The traditional definition of a job is shifting in the future, but today, we need to make sure work really pays and that people have adequate benefits. That’s why a national plan for the American workforce would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, would rethink the employment system so that it supports people in the “gig” economy, and create paid family and medical leave. This isn’t a small part of our labor market – 43% of the workforce could be participating in the “gig” economy by 2020. I also believe that we absolutely must achieve universal medical coverage, so that people can change jobs, change careers, or start new businesses like I did, without worrying whether they will have a gap in health insurance or access to a retirement savings vehicle.
Ultimately, a national strategy for the American workforce seeks to push the country toward a new economic model, which creates more equitable patterns of growth. While we need to shut down tax loopholes and end the flood of tax breaks for the largest corporations, redistribution can never do as much for the middle class as the kind of broad-based growth our country has enjoyed during its best periods.
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The traditional definition of a job is shifting; we need to ensure that everyone has the same access to opportunities that will expand our current talent ecosystem and grow the mighty middle of our economy now and in the future.