If Hospitals and Supermarkets Are The New Front Line, We Need a New GI Bill | Opinion

After World War Two, America expressed its gratitude to returning veterans by supporting their education. We subsequently renewed and made permanent these well earned benefits for veterans. We should do the same today for the people who are on the front line: grocery workers, food delivery workers, restaurant workers, building cleaners, hospital orderlies, EMTs, and everyone else on whom we have come to realize we depend for our very lives.

Tens of millions—Axios estimates well over 25 million—are putting their lives on the line for us and are taking a disproportionate hit of the job loss tsunami. For many years now we have bemoaned the surge of earnings inequality, but the conversation has been abstract. These low-income workers, until recently just data points in the discussion, are the real, living face of that inequality. Now that we understand how important they are and how much we owe them, perhaps the political moment has arrived to take action; especially as once this crisis recedes, many of these jobs will disappear as habits change and as firms automate.

Equally importantly, we want to give people a chance for something better, a chance to climb the occupational ladder.

When times are bad people want to return to school. In the Great Recession of 2007-2009, full time enrollment in community college increased by 24 percent. We need to assure that low-wage frontline workers are in a position to take advantage of this opportunity.

I recently surveyed a representative sample of working Americans and documented a troubling training gap for low-wage and other frontline workers. I asked about skills training people had received in 2019. Among people who earned $30,000 or less 46 percent received training from their employer, while 62 percent of those who earned above this threshold upgraded their skills on the job. The divide is equally sharp by educational attainment. I asked about training that people had managed to undertake on their own, and 27 percent of those with a college degree had done so compared to 14 percent of those with less education. Too many people receive too little training and access to training is a reflection of the other inequalities in the job market.

What would be the benefits of a serious effort to assure that low wage workers have access to training? After all, there is plenty of loose rhetoric that "nothing works" and that publicly supported skills training is a waste of money. In fact, high quality evaluations show that well-designed job training programs and completion of community college degree and certificate programs bring with them substantial earnings gains. For example, a random assignment evaluation of a program in San Antonio—Project QUEST—reported nine year earning gains of over $5,000 per year in earnings. A careful study of Career and Technical Education in California Community Colleges found rates of return between 14 and 45 percent depending on the field of study.

Such a bill—let's call it a GI Bill for Today's Heroes—would provide a living stipend (as a supplement to any Unemployment Insurance) and cover at the minimum two years to tuition and fees in post-secondary education and training. It would be targeted to frontline workers and the unemployed and hence, unlike recent college-for all-proposals, would not fund schooling for the well-off. Traditional post-secondary institutions would be eligible, but so would apprenticeships and some forms of online education. To ensure that the money is not wasted, we could reinstate the Obama-era initiatives to hold post-secondary institutions that receive Federal tuition dollars to real standards and to weed out fraudulent proprietary schools.

What is a back-of-envelope estimate of the cost of the bill? If we consider only bricks-and-mortar institutions, the list price for a year of community college tuition and fees is about $3,500 and about $9,000 for a public four year institution. Hence, two years of support would run between about $7,000 and $18,000. Add $20,000 a year of support and this leads to a per person annual list price expense of between $27,000 and $38,000. But the real incremental cost per person would be lower because we already spend just under $30 billion dollars on Pell grants per year, and because many four year universities have the capacity to offer financial aid.

Given the circumstances these costs are reasonable enough already, but another striking finding of training survey is the importance of online training. Even before the crisis, 21 percent of college degree holders and 11 percent of everyone else had on their own done some online training in 2019. We are now learning that online teaching is more scalable than perhaps we had understood before. Costs can be driven down further by building a robust online option.

A core component of any initiative must be to assure that quality is maintained, and that the kind of fraudulent training school activity that the Obama Administration sought to rein in does not suck up the money and disappoint people who invest their time and hopes. This will be even more important if we include online education as an option, because the opportunities for deception will be even greater. A solution would be to insist that online programs be offered, at least initially, under the auspices of recognized bricks-and-mortar providers.

Year after year, advocates bemoan the circumstances of low wage workers, policy wonks point to charts, and progressives advocate for change. But very little has happened. One good thing that can come out of this terrible crisis is a widely shared understanding of the debt we owe to low wage workers and a commitment to help them climb the economic ladder. A GI Bill for Today's Heroes would be a big step in this direction.

Paul Osterman is the NTU Professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of Good Jobs America: Making Work Better For Everyone (Russell Sage); Who Will Care For Us: Long Term Care and the Long Term Workforce (Russell Sage); and Creating Good Jobs (MIT Press).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​