Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.
The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.
The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.
Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.
So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).
A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.
Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.
The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.