Economic Recovery Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty

By Sheridan Miller

Takeaways from NEBHE’s Legislative Advisory Committee …

The economic fallout of the layoffs and business closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc for New England workers—especially those who were already facing a structurally vulnerable workforce and employment system before the pandemic. What can state governments do to stimulate job creation and make New England’s economy more resilient in the future?

This was among the questions explored at NEBHE’s virtual Legislative Advisory Committee (LAC) meeting held via Zoom on September 22. LAC members representing all six New England states met with a panel of experts to explore strategies for economic recovery in the region: Osborne Jackson, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Livia Lam, director of workforce development at the Center for American Progress, and Garrett Moran, chair of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s Governor’s Workforce Council. Here are four takeaways from the discussion.

1. Economic recovery will depend on states’ ability to identify and support the region’s most vulnerable workers.

Jackson’s latest research suggests that the overall unemployment rate in New England is expected to grow through the end of 2020 and into the beginning of 2021, albeit more slowly than the overall U.S. rate . The region’s “non-essential” workers who are unable to work from home (like home repair technicians) who represent 36% of all U.S. workers, as well as those “essential” workers who have likewise been unable to work from home (home healthcare aids and childcare workers for example), who represent 38% of all U.S. workers, have been the most vulnerable to losing their jobs during the health crisis. This group disproportionately comprises marginalized or oppressed populations, with higher rates of termination among women and workers of color. Policymakers and employers must solicit feedback regarding the needs of non-essential employees, and those who are unable to work from home, in order to help mitigate and try to slow the projected rises in unemployment.

2. New England’s most vulnerable employees can be best supported through business-led partnerships that focus on job quality.

A new Center for American Progress framework for protecting employees at high risk of unemployment calls for:

  • Increasing employer responsibility for training and employment
  • Rewarding partnerships that have a track record of increasing job quality
  • Incentivizing the use of data analytics to measure job quality
  • Rebalancing decision-making between workers, businesses and communities.

Policymakers may consider ways to incentivize measures to help support both employees and employers during these trying times. Connecticut, for instance, has started taking steps to encourage the state’s businesses to better support employees by creating business-led community partnerships. New England states might follow Connecticut’s lead, and help support their current and future employees by providing job training programs for incumbent workers, as well as recruiting new and unemployed members of the community through free education courses or virtual job fairs.

3. Increased state support for the childcare sector will be critical for the future of New England’s economy. 

Members of the LAC agreed that a priority for the region as it emerges from the pandemic will be providing affordable, high-quality childcare, delivered by professionals earnings a living wage. Childcare workers are some of the least valued, lowest-paid professionals in New England. However, after preschool and daycare centers were shut down in March due to the pandemic, many parents realized how important early childhood caretakers and teachers are. In addition to the positive long-term impacts that high-quality preschool and childcare have on children’s socioemotional and cognitive development, these programs provide important benefits to working parents, especially working mothers. To provide more affordable childcare for New Englanders while better compensating the region’s childcare providers, policymakers should consider launching programs that incentivize work-sponsored childcare as well as refundable tax credits for preschool centers or for parents and employees to utilize.

4. Broader recognition of prior learning could help accelerate the region’s economic recovery.

Most jobs that provide financial stability require a credential beyond a high school diploma. Preliminary findings from a survey conducted by NEBHE and Maguire Associates for NEBHE’s All Learning Counts initiative highlights the importance of increasing access to completion of credentials.

In New England, 39% of residents have a bachelor’s degree. While that’s generally higher than in other regions, it is still important to increase this number especially as states strive to meet postsecondary attainment goals. It is therefore imperative that New England states recognize all forms of prior learning (such as through work experience or military service) in order for residents to advance professionally, therefore improving the greater economy.

Just as there are equity gaps in employment, there are racial and ethnic gaps in the level of postsecondary attainment in New England. We can increase equity in higher education and work by granting credit to adult learners for their validated life and work experiences. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Englanders with a household income of less than $100,000 annually have changed their opinion to reflect the importance of higher education in job success, according to a survey by Maguire Associates and NEBHE. Yet many of the same survey respondents say they can’t afford to further their education without financial assistance. Broader recognition of learning can accelerate the completion of postsecondary credentials and make it more affordable to do so.

With all of this considered, policymakers should ask themselves the following questions in order to best support their constituents:

  • What barriers exist to developing and implementing recognition of learning (ROL) and credit for prior learning policies in your state?
  • How can states support institutions in developing low- or no-cost ROL programs?
  • How can states ensure that ROL is used to bridge equity gaps and help economic recovery?

Sheridan Miller is NEBHE’s state policy engagement coordinator.

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