The North America Workforce Initiative, a joint undertaking co-chaired by the George W. Bush Institute–SMU Economic Growth Initiative and NASCO (North American Strategy for Competitiveness), began in 2016 to develop and test practical approaches to workforce development across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and issue recommendations to strengthen the region’s global competitiveness.
The three USMCA partners – Canada, Mexico, and the United States – enjoy the benefits of a highly productive workforce that is the mainstay of their extensive regional supply chains. This integrated manufacturing and services platform is a world-beating competitor that underpins the region’s sustained prosperity. At the same time, the three countries share the challenge of ensuring the existence of an intergenerational pipeline that opens pathways to the middle class for the region’s youth and includes pathways for those who may struggle to find their footing in today’s technology-driven economy.
Following up on our December 2021 event in Dallas, the North America Workforce Initiative (NAWI) has convened a working group to build on our long-standing efforts in this area. In this phase, we propose to focus on supporting the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. governments’ work within the framework of the USMCA Competitiveness Committee. We set forth via actionable proposals for strengthening the region’s competitiveness by building a diverse school-to-work pipeline across North America. Ultimately, we intend to present these proposals to the three governments in the spirit of a partnership to test, implement and scale our proposals.
One overarching concern shared by all the members of our working group is the need to modernize temporary entry, either now or as part of USMCA’s review by 2026. It is the one issue that is constantly noted as something the three countries failed to advance in USMCA negotiations. The rationale has not changed since the negotiations: The current list of professions (while better than nothing) does not reflect many new high-tech skills and professions. NAFTA was 25 years old, so the USMCA list of professions predates not just the internet, but the development of global supply chains, the emergence of China as a manufacturing powerhouse, the shift to a service-driven economy in the United States and Canada, and the development of Mexican industry. The USMCA list is all but irrelevant in today’s economy and is actually impeding North America’s global competitiveness.
Below are a few of the initial recommendations and suggested action plans developed by NAWI participants after the April 2022 virtual meeting. In putting these ideas forward, our members were guided by the need to propose concrete ideas that are replicable and scalable; to focus on issues under federal purview or subject to federal funding; and to address problems, issues and/or challenges shared by all three countries.
Framework | A focus on opportunity populations
A critical issue facing all three North American countries is the issue of “opportunity populations” which represent an untapped talent pool, representative of all populations who face educational, social, financial, legal, or other obstacles to building and maintaining a sustainable life.
Opportunity populations include, but are not limited to, racial and ethnic groups marginalized by structural/systemic factors, homeless youth and adults; high school dropouts; at-risk youth; the working poor; or those with a physical or mental disability; and those who are unemployed and/or significantly underemployed.
Opportunity populations represent one in every two working age Americans. Mexico and the United States have 18 million youth at risk. Given those statistics, meeting the demand for skilled competent job seekers will be difficult at best if we do not address opportunity populations in our workforce.
Draw a Baseline Policy Review
Convene a trilateral public-private expert forum to identify the public policies in all three countries that currently inhibit opportunity populations from entering the workforce and propose public policies in all three countries that would be enabling to opportunity populations.
Government funding and policy should be directed specifically to incentivize “structured organizational partnerships” among businesses, education, and the publicly funded workforce system. Integrating these three key stakeholders and their resources would align training offered in our educational institutions with industry demand. This would and should include an emphasis on career counselors in public educational institutions that have a clear understanding of the career opportunities available, rather than focusing solely on preparing students for college. That also means strongly emphasizing career and technical education.
Providing federal funding to organizational partnerships that align and integrate these three key stakeholders should target alignment of the training offered in our educational institutions with the needs of our primary industry clusters, with a direct focus on opportunity populations and indigenous people.
Set a North American Standard for Manufacturing Credentials
Establish a trilateral working group for the North American manufacturing sector with a mandate to create common labor market information (LMI) language; a taxonomy for entry-level skills in manufacturing sectors; a benchmark/measure of competence including the knowledge and abilities needed as a production worker in North America; and a microcredential learning plan to be recognized by the regional manufacturing sector.
A proposed next step: Do a discovery process between USA-Mexico-Canada manufacturing associations to discuss/confirm synergies, capabilities, and specifications of the proof of concept. USA-Mexico-Canada governments would endorse the initiative as part of the USMCA / Workforce Development agenda and plans.
North American trade has generated job opportunities particularly in advanced manufacturing and logistics, where employability and soft and technical skills are in high demand, but there is also a growing labor shortage and skills gap. We need to ensure that our workers can meet the competitive labor demands of a continually changing North American market. We must facilitate mobility of individuals and portability of skills between countries.
Test these common measures with target groups (production workers, foreign/temporary workers, manufacturing employers, manufacturing associations), collect feedback, measure learning and business impact, and adjust where applicable/necessary.
Better Link Education and Workforce Development with Business
Develop and pilot a trilateral approach to workforce development, focused on a public/private
partnership, inclusive of education, workforce development, and the private sector. Specifically, build on aligning the skills standards between the three countries proposed above, we would demonstrate that an industry led public/private partnership between the three identified sector stakeholders can result in meeting the demand for skilled, competent job seekers, which would be sustainable, scalable, and replicable.
The U.S. Federal National Skill Standards Board, created by the National Skill Standards Act of 1994, was effective in bringing critical stakeholders together to create and align common skills standards for various industry sectors in the United States.
Like the Federal Skills Standards Board, this project can explore how to align the workforce systems of three countries around skills standards, starting with a single industry sector. This project can build on the work that has been done over the past several years by NASCO, the George W. Bush Institute and the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC).
From a replicability perspective, the project would utilize stackable credentials, developed by MSSC and endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers, with curriculum developed and driven by industry. Essentially, this is a mature program and proven approach that would not require any developmental costs to be funded, with the infrastructure/support already in place.
The North America-wide pilot project should be developed as a genuine “public-private partnership,” with funding secured from both government and the private sector to establish its sustainability. The “pilot projects” design and implementation should be carefully documented to further ensure its replicability, and, ultimately, scalability.
Border regions should be the starting points, with one or more locations selected on the
U.S.-Mexican border and one or more locations selected on the U.S.-Canadian border. One of the initial steps should be to bring major employers together on both the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.- Canadian borders, to further ensure the project is industry lead, supported by the three governments and involving subfederal governments and appropriate local academic institutions.
The strategy proposed here would address one of the common concerns voiced by industry: that education and workforce development institutions are not focused on the types of training needed for the skills and competencies required by business and industry. At the same time, one of the most common concerns voiced by education and workforce development institutions is that business and industry don’t understand the education and workforce systems/institutions and are not as supportive of them as they should be regarding what is needed to adapt current practices.
These mirroring concerns, two sides of the same coin, can be addressed through the Department of Labor, which should increasingly direct DOL funding to partnerships composed of organizations representing business, educational institutions, and local workforce boards to incentivize the integration and alignment of those three stakeholders.
The pPilot projects should involve partnerships between those same stakeholders along the U.S.-Mexican and the U.S.-Canadian borders. Government funding and policy should be directed specifically to incentivize “structured organizational partnerships” among businesses, education, and the publicly funded workforce system. Integrating these three key stakeholders and their resources would align training offered in our educational institutions supported by workforce funding with industry demand. This would and should include an emphasis on career counselors in public educational institutions that have a clear focus on the career opportunities available, rather than solely on preparing students for college. That also means a strong emphasis on career and technical education. Providing federal funding to organizational partnerships that align and integrate these three key stakeholders should incentivize a targeted approach to align and fund the training offered in our educational institutions with the needs of our primary industry clusters. Having specific pilot projects on the border would reinforce work under the HLED and the NALS work agendas.
The above proposed pilot projects, with a focus framework of opportunity populations, stand to move the region of North America to a more competitive, prosperous, and inclusive place for all. We look forward to each government’s feedback, and to working together to achieve this goal.