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Need for new workforce models increases as economy rebuilds

June 10, 2021
By: Ellen Marrison

The May jobs report that was released last Friday contained better news than the disappointing numbers from April, with May figures showing 559,000 jobs added and unemployment declining by 0.3 percentage point to 5.8 percent. But the jobs picture remains complicated. This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that there were 9.3 million vacant job openings across the country in April, a series high from its start in 2000. With employers reporting that they are facing unprecedented challenges trying to find workers to fill jobs, efforts on several fronts are aimed at returning workers to jobs, and helping them find the skills they need to fill in-demand openings.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation launched a new initiative this month mobilizing industry and government to address worker shortages, noting that such shortages are holding back job creators. Another collaborative effort between Social Finance (a national impact finance and advisory nonprofit) and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Philadelphia also premiered last week and released Workforce Realigned: How New Partnerships Are Advancing Economic Mobility. The book contains case studies and ideas by leaders from government, higher education, business and social service organizations that highlights “a new breed of partnerships” that are working to achieve “the twin objectives of advancing economic opportunities for workers and meeting the talent needs of the economy requires us to rewire the workforce system—rebalancing risk and realigning financial incentives.”

Meanwhile, a white paper by Harvard’s interdisciplinary Project on Workforce has analyzed over 300 efforts to connect workers with education and skills for employment, finding that many of those efforts fall short and highlighting the need for additional models.

In an online event exploring the findings of the chamber’s new initiative, America Works, both business executives and government officials spoke to the need for a concentrated effort to address workforce issues. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said that the COVID-19 crisis presented new challenges to the workforce and exacerbated old ones, including disparities in health care, the digital divide, and child care challenges falling heavily on women. She called for “a very strategic alignment between our business and our government to make sure that our transition out of the COVID-19 pandemic is seamless and efficient and as smooth for employers and families as it can be.”

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo noted that tech training had been largely abandoned while an over-emphasis on four-year college education for all has left many students behind or saddled with debt but no job if they dropped out of college before attaining a degree. Raimondo called for those in the business sector to sit down with training partners to determine what skills employers need and together develop highly flexible training programs to address those needs. She also called for businesses to change the way they hire and not default to requiring bachelor degrees for jobs that could be filled with skills-based competencies as opposed to a college degree. Raimondo also stressed the need for the business community to be at the table to make any effort successful, and noted that government leaders need to have the focus and passion to move the whole system to a particular goal.

Apprenticeships, which Raimondo said she expects will increase under a push and additional funding from the new administration, also offer pathways to in-demand jobs. Jobs in the tech and digital sectors like cyber security and software engineering lend themselves to apprenticeships, along with traditional building trades, she noted.

When considering competing with China, Raimondo noted that “we aren’t going to compete successfully if we don’t have talent in science and technology, and not all of that is PhD’s; a lot of that can be done with these sector-focused job training programs.”

Raimondo also spoke during the launch event of the Workforce Realigned event last week where she noted that there is a growing recognition that investments in people is economic development and shouldn’t be separate from it. Raimondo said part of the reason she took the job with the Biden administration is “to work hand in glove” with the departments of commerce, labor and education and the business community to develop the “on-ramps for everybody to be able to get the training they need.”

The white paper from Harvard’s interdisciplinary Project on Workforce, Working to Learn: Despite a growing set of innovators, America struggles to connect education and career, used 316 applications to an open grant competition for programs seeking to connect postsecondary education and employment as a dataset to study the effectiveness of those programs. The researchers found that many organizations trying to connect both education and career are still struggling to do so, and while some standout organizations are meeting the challenge, too few programs are linking soft and hard skills, prioritizing evidence, working with employers, or providing wraparound supports, said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School and co-author of the report, in a press release.

The authors findings include that there is a “huge potential” to engage employers more deeply, opportunities to build bridges between education and employment, and a growing need to develop transferable skills in the future of work. The Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) initiative, which produced the data for the report, supports innovators working at the intersection of education and employment to develop new approaches to connect young adults from low-income and underrepresented communities with the postsecondary credentials and work experience needed to access upwardly mobile careers. One of its co-leaders noted that scaling and disseminating successful models will be key to systemic change.

The sense of urgency was not lost on the secretary of commerce during the Chamber of Commerce event.

“As far as I’m concerned, no matter how you slice it, if you care about equity, if you care about raising wages, if you care about American competitiveness, this is at the heart of it and we have a moment right now to do it differently than has ever been done before and to really help businesses and to help employees at the same time,” Raimondo said.

workforce, dept of commerce, federal reserve, jobs