The pathway to the middle class used to be pretty clear: obtain a college degree or learn a trade, then get a job, work for 30 years, and retire.
But these steps — ones that have helped millions of people realize the American dream — are now less conspicuous, and insecurity about the future of work is rising.
Leaders across government, business, and academia converged on Tuesday to address fundamental questions about the future of work as part of the inaugural symposium of the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at UNLV.
“We’ve seen real insecurity amongst the middle class in terms of the stability of their jobs,” said Benoy Jacob, institute director and UNLV associate professor of public policy. “That’s a real problem that needs to be addressed. The Public Policy Institute is jumping in to generate actionable solutions.”
Representatives across several sectors gathered at the Bellagio in Las Vegas to fulfill one of the institute’s goals: elevate solutions that are both cross-sector and bipartisan in nature. Former U.S. Senator Harry Reid and former Speaker of the House John Boehner — co-chairs of the institute — headlined the inaugural event.
“We know there’s a lot of problems in Washington,” Reid said during an exclusive panel discussion with Boehner, moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press. “I do not accept the fact that things are too much in turmoil that we can’t get things done.”
Jacob said that UNLV and MGM chose the unconventional path when developing the institute, as most think tanks are either partisan or nonpartisan. The public-private collaboration in UNLV, a state university, and MGM, a private company, teaming up also sets the think tank apart from others.
“From where we stand, a bipartisan solution is the only solution that matters,” Jacob said. “Bipartisan solutions have a better chance of being implemented in the real world.”
Reid and Boehner’s discussion was wide-ranging in scope, but also focused on key themes of the day: education, policy and the future of work.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in America, especially when it comes to jobs and what the future is going to be like for our kids and grandkids,” Boehner said.
It starts with funding education more robustly, with more money needing to come from the federal government, Reid said.
Boehner said providing a decent education for every child takes collaboration from schools, home environments and the community where a child grows up.
“How do we make sure every child has a chance to a decent education? I don’t know that we have an answer to that yet,” Boehner said.
The City of Chicago has seen gains in educational achievements among high school students in recent years with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the helm. The high school graduation rate in Chicago has grown from 56 percent to 89.3 percent since he took office, Emanuel said during the symposium’s keynote address. And under his tenure, the city has implemented several measures, including universal full-day pre-Kindergarten and universal full-day Kindergarten for every child.
“Kids drop out of college in third grade; they do not drop out freshman year,” Emanuel said, adding that college banners are now a fixture in elementary schools across the city.
Participants also heard from UNLV President Marta Meana and a dozen business, policy and education leaders during three panel discussions that explored the roles and responsibilities of the education system and companies to support continuous learning, and efforts aimed at broadening access to the labor market.
At Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, officials examine labor market data daily to see who’s hiring for a wide variety of jobs in the region, from cybersecurity professionals to welders, according to Linda Head, senior associate vice chancellor for the college.
“We take those competencies that are from resumes and from talking to our employers and develop very succinct, detailed curriculum,” she said during the Delivering the Skills of the Future panel.
The college’s oil and gas program, for example, requires a student to be proficient in 360 technical competencies to graduate, and each associate of applied science degree requires a student to meet behavioral competencies as well. Each year, educators are updating and modifying their programs to meet employer needs.
“We are extremely nimble,” Head said. “Just because we developed programming 25 years ago, doesn't mean the programming is the same today.”
Meana said the institute’s commitment — in partnership with MGM — to develop, test, and research new models of workforce development makes it one of the most unique think tanks in the U.S.
“UNLV is committed to developing and supporting the region and the nation’s workforce through innovative programs that provide workers with the skills needed for the jobs today — as well as a foundation to take on an uncertain future,” Meana said. “This institute is well-positioned to advance research that supports actionable programs that help the American workforce adapt and thrive in the face of change.”
He said the institute's overall goal is to help American workers shift from job to job a little more seamlessly and a little bit faster.
“It’s less about getting a job, and as much about having a pathway that allows you to have multiple quality jobs over the course of your life,” he said.