Training and learning to succeed in the new economy

For most of the 20th Century, many Americans could sustain a career — one that could help them buy a house, buy a car, and raise a family — at a single company. With a high school diploma and a foot in the door, most American workers could get on-the-job training as they continued to work at the company that first hired them, and with that, they could often count on good benefits and enough help to retire after a lifetime of hard work. Here in Delaware, many of those jobs came at companies like GM or Chrysler.

Today, things are different.

It’s now increasingly common that Americans’ careers consist of multiple jobs in multiple industries, and the reality is that new technologies are increasingly able to complete tasks that real people were previously responsible for. As the Aspen Institute has written, up to one-third of the U.S. workforce will need to learn new skills or find work in new occupations by 2030 because of automation.

Sen. Chris Coons

It’s a daunting challenge that raises a difficult question: How can we ensure that American workers can change, grow, and succeed in a rapidly changing, digitizing economy?

There’s no silver-bullet solution, but one thing is certain: education and training for Americans can no longer stop after high school or even college.

At the end of the day, businesses and employees will have to modernize and change, but the federal government can help lead the way to ensure that lifelong learning and training opportunities are available, affordable, and meaningful for Americans of all ages and backgrounds. That’s no easy task — it requires real policy changes and real investment — but to continue to be the strongest economy in the world, it’s worth it.

In that spirit, I joined my colleague, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, in introducing legislation early this year to provide every American with a portable, government-matched savings vehicle for lifelong learning. The bill creates a tax-preferred savings account, called a Lifelong Learning and Training Account (LLTA). The federal government will match every dollar — up to $1,000 a year — that any hard-working American and his or her employer contributes to an account.

Since small businesses often struggle to dedicate sufficient funds for employee education, this tax-preferred savings account would be a huge boost to small businesses by offering them another way to invest in the development of their staff.

The best part? Individuals have the freedom to choose how to use their LLTA funds, which can be applied towards a variety of training programs that lead to a meaningful credential recognized anywhere you go. In short: you get to decide what learning and training is best for you, your family, and your career.

Here in Delaware, there is no shortage of quality training programs with a record of preparing folks who have been at their jobs for years or even decades for new careers in better-paying, growing industries.

For example, a person whose job was lost to automation could tap his or her LLTA to start a better-paying career as a registered nurse, through DelTech’s Associate Degree Nursing program.

Someone who’s previously worked in a service industry could use his or her LLTA savings to enroll in an ESL and welding programs through Sussex Tech’s Adult Division.

Or, a parent who took time off to care for young kids could get ahead by reentering the workforce with a certificate in Electrical Trades from Polytech Adult Education in Woodside.

Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts should be one piece of a revamped workforce system in the United States. I have also introduced bipartisan legislation, with Indiana Senator Todd Young, that invests in registered apprenticeship programs like those being offered by unions and employers around our state that are partnering with schools to provide quality instruction and on-the-job training to workers in a variety of skilled trades.

We know that the talent and drive of American workers is second to none, but we can do more to ensure that every American has the tools they need to keep up and succeed in our ever-changing economy.

This bill is one way we can empower every American to take charge of their future by actively planning, saving for, and completing the training programs they need to thrive.

Chris Coons is Delaware’s junior senator in the United States Congress.

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