Policymakers see retraining older Americans as key to combating labor shortage

October 22, 2021
In The News

Policymakers said the U.S. needs to do more to help older Americans reenter the labor force or transition to new careers as the economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, speaking at The Hill’s “Back to Work: Helping the Long Term Unemployed” event Tuesday, said that older workers are often “overlooked.”

“Ultimately, what we’re focused on here at the Department of Labor is how do we make sure people are prepared for the jobs that are available right now,” Walsh told The Hill’s Steve Clemons.

“Particularly those folks who were in a career where they felt they weren’t getting fulfilled, they weren’t making enough money, they need more money for their retirement,” he added.

According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 10.4 million job openings and 8.4 million job seekers as of August. But more than half of Americans aged 55 who are looking for work have remained unemployed for more than 27 weeks — a far higher percentage than the 36 percent seeking work in the general population. 

Walsh said that he believes President Biden’s legislative agenda, which includes a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a reconciliation bill with a yet-to-be determined price tag, will benefit these groups, specifically pointing to funds in the infrastructure bill set aside for job training. 

Walsh said he’s “looking forward” to Biden’s Build Back Better plan being passed. But, he said, even with bolstered job training programs, there needs to be a strong incentive for workers to put in the time learning new skills. 

“Retraining, or training itself, needs to have at the end of the training a job,” Walsh said. “By just making investments and bringing a bunch of people into a room and training them how to do something and at the end of the day saying ‘good luck’ … we can’t do that right now.”

Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), co-chair of the Future of Work Caucus, said the changing workforce dynamic is due to a “cultural shift.” 

“If you look back maybe two generations ago, most people had a much more linear path through life,” Steil said at the event, sponsored by AARP. “It was go through school ... enter the workforce, shortly thereafter begin a family and as you became an empty-nester, exit the workforce and begin retirement.” 

Many Americans today are facing a very different reality, and education and training programs need to adapt as well. Steil said that continuing education is “absolutely essential” for older people to remain competitive in the workforce.

“What we can do from a policy perspective uniquely is make sure that we’re providing flexibility in the education products that are provided,” he said. “For example, we could provide better flexibility in Pell grants for individuals that want to obtain shorter term training rather than entering a four year college in their 50s.”