February 27, 2024

June 2021, the Sunrise Movement protested outside the White House in Washington for action against climate change and green jobs.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

The economic recovery from the pandemic is at a critical point. More than nine million people are still looking for work, and employment growth last month was well below projections.

Meanwhile, companies argue that they cannot fill vacancies. Experts and experts try to explain the paradox: persistent fears of Covid; Lack of affordable child care; the safety net of unemployment benefits and economic controls that make wages from poorly paid jobs less necessary.

However, the return to work challenges can be symptomatic of a deeper problem: there may be jobs, but there are not enough good jobs.

Too many of the 106 million workers without a four-year degree, especially our low-wage workers, are stuck in badly paid jobs for too long, offer no job security and offer no real opportunities for promotion.

Without government investment to boost the growth of good jobs, there simply won’t be enough jobs that harness the potential of these workers.

Workers know they can do much more but have not been hired in better jobs because they do not have the traditional skills that employers require. The job market underestimates, if not completely, their skills because they simply lack the right qualifications or previous work history.

Federal investments in infrastructure and green technology can have a dramatic impact on gateway job creation and acceleration, helping workers build skills and transition into those roles as needed.

This dynamic has posed particular challenges for women and blacks and Latinx workers. In February, over 60% of the previously low- and middle-paid unemployed failed to graduate from four years of college – nearly 5.8 million workers. Of this group, 45% are women and 36%, or around two million, are black and Latinx. And 1.8 million women are still less gainfully employed than before the pandemic.

We’ve released new research showing these workers have the skills needed for higher paying jobs and that their access to those jobs is key to closing America’s equity gap. But none of these goals will be achieved if the federal government does not invest in the creation of infrastructure and green jobs in order to create more good jobs, and if the private sector is also involved.

In examining the careers of 29 million people in more than 800 professions, we found that many low-wage workers have gained the necessary experience to be successful in higher-skilled, good jobs and continue to do better positions in our changing digital Economy.

In particular, we identified 77 occupations that have proven to be stepping stones to economic advancement – what we call “gateway” roles – that could enable these workers to meaningfully participate in economic growth.

These gateways offer workers the opportunity to apply skills honed in one type of job to similarly skilled, higher-paying jobs in another area with greater potential for advancement. We have found that many workers without a four-year degree have successfully transitioned from a retail sales job to a manufacturing position in manufacturing or as a customer service specialist.

Customer service representatives are particularly well qualified for certain entry-level IT support roles. Many of these jobs are rooted in American infrastructure, from the transportation and storage sectors to manufacturing and machine tool programmers to electrical repairs and commercial and industrial equipment. These gateway jobs have a promise to reward the talents of millions of people.

Our analysis predicts that the current development of the US economy is likely to create nearly half a million of these gateway jobs in the next year. However, that’s far fewer than the 5.8 million jobs we need to help skilled workers, especially women, blacks and Latinx workers who previously had low-wage jobs, climb the economic ladder.

The action of the federal government is decisive here. Federal investments in infrastructure and green technology can have a dramatic impact on gateway job creation and acceleration, helping workers build skills and transition into those roles as needed.

Research shows that this type of investment could catalyze nearly 2.7 million jobs over the next decade. Investing in infrastructure and green technologies has the potential to create a range of well-paying jobs in the short term while supporting research, development and business ventures that increase those jobs over the long term.

After the great recession of 2009, we failed to create upward mobility for workers without a four-year degree, especially women, blacks and Latinx workers. We haven’t translated investing into good jobs for long-term success. For far too many people, the jobs available were low-wage, low-welfare or security-poor, undermining America’s competitiveness while exacerbating racial and gender inequality. We cannot afford to make this mistake again.

Zoë Baird is President and CEO of the Markle Foundation, Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League, and Brad Smith is President of Microsoft.