Economists have estimated that at least four-fifths of the jobs created by the infrastructure bill and the broader economic plan would not require college degrees, a dynamic that Biden unfailingly highlights when he discusses them.
“Best of all, the vast majority of these jobs … that we’re going to create don’t require a college degree,” Biden declared in Baltimore last week after the House finally passed the infrastructure plan. “This is the ultimate blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” The President used similar language when he signed the bill in a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.
“We cannot stop global change,” Clinton declared when he signed the NAFTA legislation. “We can only harness the energy to our benefit. … Every worker must receive the education and training he or she needs to reap the rewards of international competition rather than to bear its burdens.”
By contrast, Biden’s economic agenda focuses much more directly on improving conditions for workers in jobs that don’t require advanced education. While strongly supporting efforts to increase educational opportunity — through programs such as universal prekindergarten and expanded financial assistance for higher education — the President and his team believe that more education alone, absent other targeted policies, isn’t enough to create broadly shared prosperity.
“He has long recognized that blue-collar workers, non-college-educated workers, workers in traditionally lower-paid sectors, such as laborers in manufacturing or providers of care to kids and older persons, in many ways those workers have for too long been forgotten by even Democrat policy makers, who basically told them, ‘Get a college education and you’ll be fine,’ ” Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told me. “Which is not a viable option for a lot of people and seems pretty dismissive of their experience. I think he’s always bridled at an economics that leaves behind two-thirds of the workforce [without college degrees] and especially given that it’s the two-thirds of the workforce that’s been least pulled along by economic growth.”
New jobs for non-college workers
“We expect these to be the type of good jobs that point to the heyday of when manufacturing and construction were good jobs, they paid well and had benefits,” says Nicole Smith, the center’s chief economist. “We expect that … to last for at least eight to 10 years.”
In one key respect, the two plans are strikingly complementary. The Georgetown center calculates that men hold 90% of the current infrastructure-related jobs and men dominate the sectors that would see the most new jobs under the legislation. Meanwhile, Hersh calculates that early childhood education, child care and long-term care — all very low-wage fields now dominated by women, especially women of color — would generate about half of all the new jobs (more than 1.1 million) annually created by the broader bill.
“It seems that you have the infrastructure bill for men, and you have the reconciliation bill for women and [minorities],” says Smith.
Boosting wages and benefits
Supporters of the Biden plans expect they would increase the leverage of workers without college degrees to bargain for better wages and benefits by creating much more demand for such labor. “Having job creation at that pace and this level of jobs is going to tighten up those markets and help create pressure for wage increases that you don’t usually see lower down the job scale unless we reach full employment,” says Hersh.
But the plans don’t rely solely on tightened labor markets as their lever to increase wages for workers without advanced education. Though these ideas have drawn little attention, each bill includes multiple provisions designed to directly bolster wages and/or benefits for workers in sectors that the legislation would promote.
Child care workers “are in the lowest 2% of earnings of all US employees-and preschool teachers are at the 18 percent [level],” Marcy Whitebook, the center’s director emeritus, told me. With parents already buckling under the cost, she says, child care and early education providers have little room to raise wages, even as low pay leads to enormous turnover and staffing shortages. “Most programs are at a breaking point because it’s just a hard business,” Whitebook says. “It doesn’t add up.”
The early childhood provisions in the Build Back Better plan — which include funding for universal preschool and a measure to cap child care expenses for most middle-class families at 7% of income — could channel enough new public money into the system to break that cycle. The bill sets reimbursement rates for state programs at a level that is linked to better wages, Whitebook says. It also says programs receiving the federal funding should pay early childhood teachers with four-year degrees (now about one-third of them) salaries equivalent to those of elementary school teachers with comparable credentials, who are typically paid much more. The changes might not be felt immediately, Whitebook says, but over time, “for workers it could be an improvement.”
‘Either/or’ vs. ‘both/and’
In all these ways, the infrastructure and reconciliation bills subtly diverge from the approach under Clinton and Obama. Each of those Democratic presidents stressed the importance of expanding access to higher education and training to move more workers up the skills ladder toward higher-paying and often high-tech occupations. As Robert Reich, Clinton’s labor secretary, told me earlier this year, the administration was “fixated on education as the magic bullet for curing widening inequality. It was the solution. And Clinton — I’m embarrassed to say, at my urging — would often say, ‘What you earn is what you learn.’ ”
Like Clinton and Obama, Biden is proposing multiple efforts to expand access to education — from the free universal pre-K program to expanded financial aid for college (even if a free community college program was dropped from the broader economic agenda as it was trimmed back). And the reconciliation bill devotes $20 billion to helping workers obtain training while still working. The difference is that Biden’s strategy assumes the economy will continue to need large numbers of workers in fields now considered low-skill — and that encouraging more of them to obtain more academic credentials in the future cannot substitute for improving their working conditions now.
“For both the President and the first lady it’s never an either/or, it’s always a both/and,” says Bernstein. “We have to make sure that education is accessible for all comers, but we can’t do that at the expense of a current workforce that is in need of high-quality jobs.”
To explain stagnant wages, Reich, now a public policy professor at UC Berkeley, cites “the structure of how markets are organized, the decline of organized labor, the rise of monopolies and the extraordinary power in the hands of relatively few big companies.”
But in both their effects on the overall economy and specific interventions in key markets, the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better agenda represent the most concerted effort in recent times to strengthen the position of workers without advanced education. In the near term, it remains uncertain whether these initiatives can reverse the rising tide of working-class discontent Biden is facing in polls, but his team is looking at a much longer horizon.
“The idea here is not just to provide some sort of a near-term stimulus that keeps people busy for months or quarters,” says Bernstein. “It’s to fundamentally transform key sectors within our economy that disproportionately employ blue-collar and service workers … in a way that incentivizes not just more jobs, but higher-quality jobs.”