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Photo: LES HASSELL
Photo: LES HASSELL

Opinion: Legislation to help America’s workforce

America is at a crossroads in workforce development. The need for relevant skills training is acute – employers report over seven million job openings as they struggle to find workers with the knowledge and training required to fill them. Meanwhile, according to the Federal Reserve, Americans have more than doubled their student loan debt over the last decade to about $1.5 trillion, pursuing an education that, in many cases, does not equip them with the skills to compete effectively in today’s job market.

Creating a tomorrow-ready workforce is rightfully a shared enterprise between business and government, and it’s a challenge we must rise to meet, together. While companies like ours are making significant investments in people to ensure we have a talent pipeline with the education, skills and training required for successful careers, the federal government has a critical role to play in this effort, too. Modernizing legislation like the Higher Education Act (HEA) is a good place to start – specifically broadening the Federal Work Study (FWS) program and Pell Grant eligibility requirements to make them more accessible and available to all types of students.

While the FWS program allows full-time students to receive federal financial aid by working when in school, typical jobs take place on-campus, involve low-level clerical tasks or services, and have little connection to a student’s career aspirations. Instead, what we need are internships and co-op programs like the ones Novelis supports that provide experiential learning and development opportunities for interested students in the communities in which it operates. With FWS support, Novelis could significantly expand these opportunities for students interested in its core business – rolled aluminum manufacturing – and in other key fields, such as accounting, supply chain management and human resources.

But, unfortunately, less than one-tenth of one percent of FWS funds currently support off-campus jobs in the private sector. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced a pilot program that would lift the caps on off-campus work to allow schools and employers to place students in meaningful positions where they can learn the skills necessary to land a good job and still pursue their education. That’s a good first step, but Congress should now follow suit and lift similar restrictions as they look to modernize the HEA.

The Home Depot’s current summer internship program provides more than 300 students annually with the opportunity to get real, hands-on experience across a wide range of competencies. On average, 80 percent of those interns are offered full-time positions after completing the program and roughly 90 percent accept. And The Home Depot has committed $50 million to fund skilled trades training for other good jobs in badly needed areas such as plumbing, HVAC and electrical. With additional FWS funds to support a similar program throughout the academic year, the company could further build out its talent pipeline. And with our fellow Business Roundtable CEOs, who lead American companies with more than 15 million employees, we could collectively invest in similar programs to cultivate the workforce we need to better compete in a global economy.

In addition to FWS, the HEA also sets the parameters for Pell Grants that provide critical financial aid to lower-income students and workers seeking the skills needed in today’s job market. Yet, the current rules require that a person take at least 600 hours/16 credits of study to be eligible for aid, even though many training programs that employers’ value can be completed in less time. Pell Grant requirements should be updated to reflect today’s workforce realities and be more focused on competencies rather than an arbitrary amount of time.

In Georgia, The Home Depot and Novelis have created programs and support partnerships with local educational institutions that range from traditional four-year universities to technical schools to community colleges and certification programs. One thing we know for sure is that there is more than one pathway to a successful career. Many open positions do not require a traditional two- or four-year college degree. Therefore, Pell grants should also be made available to those attending programs that require less than 600 hours of instruction, as they too deserve a viable pathway to a good-paying job.

Ensuring that more Americans have an opportunity to prosper in our economy is a team effort. Updating the Higher Education Act is an important step to giving students and working adults access to the training they need to fulfill their career goals. Companies like ours plan to do our part, but the government needs to do its part too, and together we can create the workforce of the future.

Steve Fisher is President and CEO of Novelis Inc. Craig Menear is Chairman, CEO and President of The Home Depot. Both are members of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies.

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