Connecting workers to good jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage is a persistent labor market challenge. We see it in the current economic crisis from the pandemic, but this problem has existed for years during times of low unemployment. Today, it’s especially challenging among people of color, who have been hit the hardest by the dual public health and economic crises.
Both the Biden administration and Congress are rightly considering how to help the economy recover and alleviate this problem in the long term. But one idea that legislators have put on the table could actually make the situation worse, not better, for workers.
Specifically, some policy makers have proposed to open up federal Pell Grants, the government’s primary aid program for low-income students seeking a postsecondary credential, to job training programs as short as eight weeks. Unfortunately, rather than expanding opportunity for workers, this change could put them at greater risk. In fact, it raises the question of whether such proposals are designed to actually help workers or rather to simply make life easier for employers, particularly ones that chronically underpay their workforce.
Employers should be leading the charge to provide training and upskilling for their workers, but in many cases, they’re dropping the ball. Companies like Walmart and Amazon are pushing the idea of opening up Pell Grant dollars to short-term programs for a reason: it would let employers off the hook even more by having taxpayers shoulder the costs of training their low-wage workers.
Indeed, it could make those workers more expendable, allowing employers to count on a constant pool of newly trained candidates waiting in the wings to fill vacancies created by high turnover due to unsafe working conditions, low wages and poor treatment. Such a revolving door would hurt workers at every turn and undermine their bargaining power to push for higher pay and better working conditions.
Undoubtedly, people of color and women would feel such impacts the most, as they are overrepresented in the types of low-paying jobs into which these programs generally track workers. One study showed the share of Black and Latina women in these vocational programs was more than double that of bachelor’s degrees. And 20 years after high school, the median salary for women with a vocational degree was less than $25,000.
These Americans would also be the likely targets of slick marketing efforts to enroll Pell-eligible students in new short-term training courses instead of degree programs that offer them a path to a more stable and secure economic future. Meanwhile, bachelor’s degree attainment is only growing among white Americans, creating a wide and expanding chasm in economic opportunity.
We’ve seen a glimpse of what could happen with similar programs at the state level. Virginia’s FastForward program, a workforce-development initiative that offers short-term credentials through the state’s community college system, is frequently cited as a model for why very short job training should be eligible for federal higher education grants. While good data on short-term programs are limited, reports from Virginia show that most students are enrolled in programs to prepare them for jobs that have extremely high turnover rates, including truck drivers and certified nursing assistants.
Health care is one of the industries showcased for how short-term credentials can provide economic security and a path to a promising career. But high turnover is compounded by low pay in the health-care jobs these programs yield. A significant proportion of certified nursing assistants earn less than the average American high school graduate — so it’s no wonder that studies have shown that the many who work in nursing homes have turnover rates that commonly exceed 100 percent.
And while these programs are often billed as being the first step in career advancement, it is often students’ first and only step. It is a prime example of students being told that, even though they may start in a low-wage job, they can then move on to nursing programs and ultimately advance to well-paying, stable jobs. While it sounds great in theory, it rarely happens. One study found that only 3 percent of certified nursing assistants ever became licensed practical nurses or registered nurses. And just 1 percent ever obtained an associate degree or higher.
It’s hard to make the case that these are the kind of “good jobs” that students should use their limited federal Pell Grant funding to pursue. Yet if legislation allows them to do so, working conditions in these fields stand to get even worse, as employers will count on workers to use their financial aid to train themselves — completely abdicating their own responsibility to develop their workforce and invest in their employees.
The Pell Grant program was not designed to replace the role organizations should play in training their workers. Expanding the program to cover short job training programs will both put workers at greater risk of abuse by their employers and reduce their leverage to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
If President Biden and Congress want to build back better and provide real opportunities to workers, the answer is to support workers in organizing to advance their rights and incentivize employers to dedicate more resources to training and retaining their employees. It is not to introduce new loopholes that shift that burden to already beleaguered American workers.