As the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many universities online for the upcoming fall semester and dramatically increased the number of individuals enrolled in online-learning platforms such as Coursera, one thing is clear: The way we approach higher education in the United States is changing. And President Trump’s recent executive order directing the federal government to consider skills as well as degrees in hiring employees is a big win for those who want our federal workforce to keep pace with that change.
To keep the American workforce competitive in the 21st century, we need to be deliberate about how our nation finds and develops talent. In the post-pandemic economic recovery, leveraging all of the educational tools at our country’s disposal is not a luxury, but a necessity. And to that end, the Ivanka Trump–led American Workforce Policy Advisory Board has spearheaded the administration’s advocacy for apprenticeships, online learning, and vocational training as cornerstones of educational reform.
We cannot, of course, discount the importance of liberal-arts education. To take one example, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon noted last year that the ability to write well is increasingly rare, even at his firm. He praised liberal-arts institutions for equipping students with the communication and interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in the professional world. Any national workforce policy must recognize the importance of these “soft skills.”
And that is the beauty of the president’s recent executive order: Rather than downgrading the federal conception of traditional education’s value, it directs the government to also consider a candidate’s skills. With the domestic challenges and geopolitical threats that America faces today, our government should be intentional about how it hires and nurtures talent. Difficult problems demand a workforce that is up to the task of finding and implementing solutions.
Companies realize this. Many of America’s top employers have reemphasized skills; IBM recently announced that it would invest $1 billion in apprenticeship programs and other skills training. And in a major victory for the Trump administration, employers across the country have committed to nearly 10 million training, upskilling, or reskilling opportunities for American workers and students through the White House’s Pledge to America’s Workers. The impact of this initiative will reverberate for many, many years to come.
Mere economic growth is not enough to build an economy in which everyone has a shot at the American Dream. Our policymakers must prioritize skills education so that technological advancement can inure to the benefit of all. We cannot disregard the many hard-working Americans at risk of displacement from (or already displaced by) the rise of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, as well as the increasing economy-wide shift to telework. These folks are the backbone of our nation.
Ultimately, one of the things that makes America exceptional in the modern day is its collective brainpower. Put simply, we have a lot of smart people. But we must nourish this intelligence and channel it into skills-based education if we hope to maintain our place as a global superpower. President Trump’s executive order is a step in the right direction, and offers the country much to look forward to.