A Department of Jobs, Skills and Economic Development

Much of the structure of the government of the United States was designed and built in the middle part of the last century. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11 was the last big structural change. In a time of rising global competition and technological change, it is time to fashion a new government department focused solely on creating good jobs for Americans, and helping American succeed in a new world of work that requires very different skills. Let’s call it the Department of Jobs, Skills and Economic Development.

It is remarkable to consider that the executive branch of our government has no one person or department truly responsible for creating good jobs for the American people, and ensuring our workers have the skills to succeed in a changing world. These responsibilities are scattered throughout the federal government, residing in the Departments of Commerce, Labor, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Education and Agriculture, the United States Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Small Business Administration and throughout the White House itself. A new Department of Jobs, Skills and Economic Development would consolidate these many disparate activities and programs in a single place, allowing for greater efficiency but also far greater strategic focus and coordination. The process of building the Department would force a debate about all the programs it would inherit, and whether they are working or can be improved. Redundant or under-performing programs could be eliminated, freeing up resources for higher priority projects. It would be a powerful department, but also should by design be a modern and skinny one — lean and mean.

Congress and the White House would ultimately decide what would end up in this new department and what would remain in other places, but certainly one could imagine some of these other departments and agencies getting subsumed entirely into this new mission. This new department (DJSED) would work closely with the economic development agencies and other agencies of the states, and learn from their best practices. Policymakers can also study how other nations tackle these challenges, and draw from their experience. The balkanization of these responsibilities in Congress would also end, and allow far greater strategic focus from our elected representatives.

One of the things this new Department can focus on is what I call a “safety net of skills and knowledge.” In the industrial age we created a safety net for our people, one that included health care and income support. It is also now time we committed to create a true system of lifetime learning, one that anticipates our citizens will need the acquisition of new skills to become routine and persistent throughout their lives. There are many ways this new 21st century safety net can get constructed and built, many pieces of it already exist, and it will evolve and mature over time. But it is something that our emerging Millennial politicians should put their minds to and help build over the coming decades. Like the Department itself, this new digital age safety net would be about taking things that are already getting done and organizing them in a way that makes them far more focused and effective.

The Department could also expand the small Economic Development Administration currently in the Commerce Department, and give it a more expansive mission that could even include national infrastructure and transportation planning and travel, tourism and trade promotion. It would work closely with the fifty states, supporting their ongoing locally driven initiatives. All fifty states have an economic development agency focused on creating growth and good jobs for their communities for a reason. It works. It is long past time the federal government and the nation had one too.

The construction of the Pentagon.

Perhaps the most important reason to create this new Department is that in my mind the only way we can respond to both the enormity of the task in front of us, and its urgency. We simply have to do more than we are doing today to help the American people succeed. And whatever we do needs to be dramatic, something real and tangible, not something that is nibbling around the edges of what is perhaps the most important challenge America faces today. We need to let the American people know we hear them, and are changing the way we do business here in Washington to make their lives better. There may be other ways of attacking this problem but creating a super-sized but lean and mean Department would be an important first step that will give us a chance of coming up with approaches commensurate to the size of the problem itself.

And the problem is real. With billions of people today contributing to the advancement of knowledge every day, our already fast world will continue to speed up. Skills and knowledge acquired in high and school and college will be far more likely to become obsolete in one’s lifetime in the 21st century, and we need ways to make continuous learning more than a slogan. Additionally, with nations across the world rising and growing modern companies, global competition for our businesses and workers is likely to get more far more intense. The time when America stood like a conquering giant above the economies of the world is long in the past, and a new age of competition and progress is with us. Our government must help its own institutions become as fast and innovative as the global economy itself, and to do far more to effectively support good, deserving Americans who work hard and play by the rules and expect more from all of us.

Perhaps this project is the Kennedy Moonshot of our time, something we know we have to do but are not quite sure how to get there. Creating a new Department with a new mission and lots of capacity and focus is a good way to start. Perhaps it is old Washington think — a reorganization! — but am open to better ideas on how we can get this done in the years ahead. Whatever you think let the debate begin. The good people of the United States deserve more from all of us in Washington as they look to compete and prosper in a far more challenging 21st century global economy.

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