Invest in People

Education and Workforce Training

The U.S. workforce propels U.S. leadership in innovation by stewarding the development and deployment of new products and technologies. Sustaining this leadership amidst accelerating technological change means recognizing the changing nature of work and responding to new demands for an evolving portfolio of skills. It also means ensuring that the building blocks of U.S. human capital are sound — that the U.S. education system is high performing and broadly accessible and that training resources serve workers through lifetimes of growth and change.  

Failure to proactively prepare students and workers with innovation-ready skills puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage and restricts participation in the innovation economy. Inaction on this front shortchanges the full potential of U.S. human capital, undercuts efforts to capitalize on U.S. innovative capacity and increases the likelihood of painful labor market disruptions triggered by economic change. Robust investments in education and workforce training ensure that the benefits of innovation are broadly shared across the workforce and that workers thrive against a backdrop of rapid change. However, when it comes to building human capital, the U.S. approach is far from meeting this challenge.

The K-12 education system falls short of unleashing the full potential of its students.

  • Out of 70 countries that participate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. ranks just 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math.
U.S. PISA Test Ranking
  • In 2013, only 19 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in a calculus course or higher, though students in the top fifth of socioeconomic status enrolled at almost twice that rate.

Workforce training programs, particularly those that do not require a four-year degree, are not up to the task — leaving the full potential of the U.S. workforce untapped.

  • The U.S. workforce development system is fragmented, duplicative and incomplete, as federal investments in workforce training programs have declined and stagnated.
  • U.S. public spending on training as a share of gross domestic product trails that of peer and competitor countries.
Public Spending on Training as a Share of GDP (rank + time series)
  • According to the Global Innovation Index, China ranks first in “Knowledge Workers,” while the United States lags behind at 13th.

U.S. education and training resources fail to meet the evolving needs of the innovation economy, creating a sizable “skills gap” that leaves business with an insufficient supply of qualified workers.

  • A 2016 Business Roundtable survey found that 44 percent of responding CEOs whose companies employ skilled trade workers reported difficulty finding qualified candidates for at least one skilled trade occupation.
  • A recent survey of senior business leaders found that 56 percent see talent shortages as the greatest barrier to quickly implementing artificial intelligence in business operations.
  • In science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, the number of job postings in 2016 was almost 13 times higher than the number of qualified, available workers.
  • An estimated 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled between 2018 and 2028 due to a skills shortage.

Strategic, cross-sector workforce training investments are needed to help close the skills gap and leverage additional funding sources.

  • Research consistently finds that students receive meaningful economic returns – due to higher wages, increased likelihood of employment and more hours worked – from vocational credentials earned at public community colleges.
  • Internship and apprenticeship programs are also highly effective training programs that  align labor supply with the needs of U.S. businesses. However, just 5 percent of U.S. students participate in apprenticeship programs, compared to roughly 60 percent of German students.
U.S. Potential Apprenticeships by per capita Country Apprenticeships


A highly skilled and adaptable workforce is a prerequisite for creating and sustaining an innovative national economy. While the first and most important component of investing in human capital is shoring up the skills and capabilities of the domestic workforce, the United States must also compete in the global race for talent by working to attract the best and brightest minds to contribute to the U.S. economy and drive U.S. productivity.

The United States has both a high demand for and a largely untapped global supply of skilled labor, but the mechanism to connect the two — the immigration system — is broken. Failure to continue to attract top global talent to the U.S. labor force represents a missed opportunity for the United States to strengthen its competitive edge in innovation. While U.S. industry has the capacity to lead the world in innovation, the nation risks falling behind in the global race for talent by constraining its own ability to compete.

Highly skilled non-U.S. citizens continue to make important contributions to U.S. innovation leadership and scientific advances.

  • More than half of U.S. workers with a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field were foreign born as of 2013.
  • Since the establishment of the Nobel Prize, approximately 40 percent of the awards have gone to researchers working at U.S. institutions — 35 percent of whom were immigrants to the United States. 
  • Immigrants and their children have helped found 60 percent of the most valuable U.S. technology companies, which combined were worth nearly $4 trillion in 2018. 

While the United States remains attractive to highly skilled workers, unnecessary barriers hinder the nation’s ability to leverage and benefit from the global pool of talent.

  • The oversubscription of the H1-B visa program reflects high demand for U.S. employment opportunities on the part of talented professionals. In 2017, the number of H1-B visa applications received was more than 35 percent — or 100,000 applications — higher than the number approved. 
  • Oversubscription of the H1-B program comes as domestic companies face shortages of skilled employees, especially in STEM fields. In 2010, there were 5.4 STEM jobs posted online for each unemployed STEM worker, a gap that more than doubled by 2016 when there were 13 STEM jobs for each qualified, available professional. 
  • International students at U.S. universities face significant hurdles to using their training at U.S. businesses to drive U.S. output and productivity. Ninety percent of foreign science and engineering doctorate recipients who intend to work outside of academia would prefer to stay in the United States and work, but only about 50 percent are able to.

These barriers to highly skilled immigration put the United States at a disadvantage, as U.S. firms struggle to meet needs for innovation-ready skills.  

  • As a share of the overall population, Canada and Australia admit nine and 11 times more immigrants, respectively, through employment or skills-based visa programs than the United States.
Relative Numbers of Employment-Based Immigrants
  • Sixty-nine percent of human resources professionals in high-tech fields report experiencing difficulty filling open positions.
Difficulty Filling Full-Time Positions by Job Category

Policy Recommendations

  1. Build a pipeline of students with globally competitive 21st-century skills. The public and private sector should work together to create and maintain partnerships among educational institutions, employers, state and local leadership, and the federal government to promote work-based learning and meet shifting and increasingly dynamic workforce demands.
  2. Increase training at educational institutions for in-demand skills. The United States should expand opportunities for students to gain exposure to and training and/or retraining in the high-demand technical and foundational skills needed to thrive in the new economy in the following ways:
  3. Congress should ensure that the Higher Education Act reauthorization includes expanded Workforce Pell Grants and opens the Federal Pell Grant system to short-term skilled worker education programs.
  4. Employers and educational leaders should engage with Congress and educational policymakers to align funding priorities with labor market realities. This effort includes partnering with the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that career and technical education programs culminate in meaningful credentials or industry certifications in high-demand, high-skill fields.
  5. Congress should reform the Federal Work-Study system to allow for off-campus, work-based learning opportunities.
  6. Partner with higher education to shorten pathways to jobs for individuals with recognized skills. Education policymakers should ensure that federal and state workforce preparedness policies, developed in partnership and collaboration with employers, promote standardized credentials that reflect proof-of-skill attainment in high-demand skillsets and are portable across industries. Students and workers should receive credit for mastery achieved in a range of professional careers (e.g., military). They should also have access to high-quality certificate programs that efficiently deliver training resources beyond the traditional framework of bachelor’s degree programs.
  7. Align education with job opportunities. Education policymakers should create new linkages between educators and employers so that students receive the most up-to-date, relevant education in the foundational and technical skills that are needed in today’s workplace. Education systems need resources and incentives to constantly shift their offerings to realign with the workforce of the future and increase the transparency of their employment-related outcomes.
  8. Bolster STEM education and digital proficiency at all levels. U.S. leaders across the public and private sector should build a national culture that strongly values STEM education. Policymakers should update and expand STEM education offerings and graduation requirements, including those in information technology. State policymakers and educators should strengthen preparation and professional development programs using research-based practices to improve STEM instruction in K–12 education.
  9. Invest in foundational skills and proficiencies. Education policymakers should focus education programs and investments on the building blocks of strong educational performance by working to boost proficiency in fundamental skills such as teamwork, communication and adaptability, as well as literacy, digital skills and mathematics.
  10. Design workforce training and preparedness for the future. Make investments in workforce training that reflect the needs of the changing workforce by emphasizing flexible and portable resources that meet workers at any stage.
  11. Expand pathways between education and the workplace. Congress and state and local policymakers should expand the use of well-proven models of skilled worker training and education, such as community college partnerships and other private-public models, that provide pathways between high school, postsecondary education and training, and entry-level positions. These programs should be responsive to local economies and align training and education with the needs of the evolving labor market.
  12. Expand apprenticeships and work-based learning. Congress and state and local policymakers should support private-sector efforts to expand apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities, such as internships. These learning and training programs should be continuous and available to workers not just at the start but throughout their careers.
  13. Leverage company investment in worker training. Congress and state and local policymakers should encourage and facilitate partnerships to leverage private company investments in worker training and life-long learning programs that are consistent with shifts in high-demand skillsets and are customizable to workers’ needs and interests, such as portable workforce training accounts.
  14. Leverage technology to improve training options. Employers and credentialing organizations should increase acceptance of digital platforms that award and track certifications to facilitate a skills marketplace for the workforce of the future (e.g., through massive open online courses), enabling the efficient delivery of useful and high-quality skill-building resources.
  15. Attract and retain the best and the brightest global talent. Build a globally competitive workforce and become the top global destination for talent with 21st-century technical and job skills:
  16. Increase visas for skilled workers. The federal government should increase the availability of H-1B temporary visas for high-skilled professionals and maintain the employment authorization for H-4 dependent spouses.
  17. Improve the predictability of adjudications of skilled worker visa petitions. The federal government should improve the transparency and consistency of adjudication processes to ensure predictable treatment of petitions for high-skilled workers.
  18. Retain highly skilled international students. The U.S government should retain highly skilled international students who have advanced degrees in a STEM field from a U.S. institution by:
  19. Providing an automatic green card for graduates in STEM fields and eliminate the per-country limit for employment-based immigration.
  20. Maintaining authorization for the Optional Practical Training period for student visas in qualifying STEM fields.
  21. Maintain work authorization for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. The federal government should ensure that DACA recipients who already have work authorization are able to continue contributing, living and working in the United States without disruption.

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