As the post-pandemic economy evolves, skills and credential will matter even more than before.

The pandemic has accelerated changes in the labor market. For a variety of reasons, workforce participation is down. Job openings are at all-time highs. Most states, including Washington, have fewer jobs now than they did in 2019.

In response, more employers are turning to automation to fill the gaps. The Associated Press headline asks, “Do we need humans for that job?

The pandemic didn’t just threaten Americans’ health when it slammed the United States in 2020 — it may also have posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with worker shortages and higher labor costs, companies are starting to automate service-sector jobs that economists once considered safe, assuming that machines couldn’t easily provide the human contact they believed customers would demand.

Past experience suggests that such automation waves eventually create more jobs than they destroy, but that they also disproportionately wipe out less skilled jobs that many low-income workers depend on.

At Sea-Tac Airport, robots are already delivering food to hungry travelers.

All of which returns us to a theme we’ve sounded here before: As the economy evolves, those entering the workforce will need post-secondary training and credentials. We lean on the work done by the Washington Roundtable and Partnership for Learning in documenting the importance the credential. The Path to 70%  Credential Attainment: Recovery and Reimagining makes the compelling case.

Recently the Partnership for Learning pointed us to a pair of commentaries we want to recommend to you.

In the Kitsap Sun, a first-year college student, Wendi Pablo, shares her story. We’ll quote just a few paragraphs and urge you to read the whole thing. She begins by recounting the too-familiar story of students finishing their high school years remotely and limited access to on-site resources.

With support from my College Success Foundation advisor, I am now finishing my first year at Olympic College, where I’m taking classes to prepare me either for nursing, or to become a Spanish teacher. As the first in my family to attend college, I am excited to earn my degree. I want a career that is rewarding and – should another situation like the pandemic arise – stable.

Studies repeatedly show that earning a credential after high school – such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate – is one of the strongest predictors of lifetime earnings and other positive outcomes. Data also confirm that too many young people in Washington state aren’t enrolling or persisting in post-high school education and earning credentials.

Business, community, and state leaders have been rallying around a goal that 70% of Washington high school students will go on to complete a credential. Reaching this goal will serve Washington’s economy and serve communities across the state. But clearly, there’s work to do because just 41 percent of the high school class of 2017 is expected to complete a credential by age 26 and the pandemic has put us even further behind. Estimated credential attainment for Black, Latinx, and Native American students is even lower.

The windfall federal aid the state received can help improve those outcomes.

Our state has the chance to turn a one-time opportunity into long-term benefits for Washington by investing federal funding in students. The pandemic, as well as barriers that existed long before COVID-19, should not prevent students from pursing our education, career goals, and our dreams. I urge lawmakers to direct American Rescue Plan dollars into solutions for students, creating a brighter future for students, our families, employers, and our communities.

Then, in the Tri-City Herald, Kimber Connors, the executive director of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, writes of the importance of STEM education.

Washington has more STEM job openings per capita than any state in the US, and demand for skilled workers continues to drastically outpace supply.

The Washington Roundtable estimates our economy will need 70% of graduating students to obtain a post-secondary credential by 2030 to fill these jobs. Today, just 41% of the class of 2017 are on track to do so. That number drops to 31% for Black graduates and 26% for students from low-income backgrounds.

With barriers falling along racial, gender, geographic and economic lines, we need employers and public leaders to provide equitable pathways to certificates and degrees that allow students from all backgrounds to succeed.

The Opportunity Scholarship is making a difference.

Fortunately, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) was created in 2011 to connect low- and middle-income Washington students to promising careers. Private sector donations are matched one-to-one by the state of Washington to support students facing the greatest barriers to careers in high-demand fields.

Data over the last decade show that WSOS is breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Washington. Seven in 10 of our current Scholars are students of color and two-thirds are first generation college students. We’re on track to serve 20,000 students by 2025, and to date, we’ve served more than 500 Scholars from Benton and Franklin counties.

It’s obvious that the economy is changing. It’s also clear that Washington public policy and private sector partnerships can improve opportunities for those who will soon be entering a more demanding labor market.