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Organizations unveil fresh approaches to address workforce challenges

December 17, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

In a year that has seen the economy drop off a cliff, unemployment skyrocket and racial discrimination shock the consciousness of a nation, one might think all hope is lost. But there are those who are working to take this moment in time and re-emerge on the other side a stronger, more inclusive nation. As many workers face the prospect of a job that may never return, Americans in a more comfortable position who have been able to shift their work to remote locations have applauded the work of those left on the front lines during the current pandemic. And a realization that the economy wasn’t always working for all, and the American dream was becoming more of a nightmare for large segments of the population, is coalescing into action for better jobs and greater inclusion.

This week, an alliance of workforce partners has begun to release a suite of tools designed to help those who have worked to build their skills through experience, but lack a four-year degree. A recent report reveals how those who have worked to build their skill set have nonetheless experienced stagnant or downward wage trajectories. Turning that tide to a more positive outcome is the driving force behind many in the workforce development field. In this story we look at the efforts of Opportunity@Work and the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, both of which are part of Markle’s initiative known as Rework America Alliance.

Opportunity@Work released a report showing that people who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs) have skills for higher paid work, but are not filling these jobs at a high enough level. Furthermore, the report found that while STARs are making job transitions in high numbers, those changes do not result in wage gain. To return the economy to a stronger position than it was in prior to the pandemic, the report argues employers can create access to higher paying jobs by opening more pathways for STARs and moving toward a more skills-based hiring mentality as opposed to relying on a four-year degree. As part of an effort to help close that gap, the Rework America Alliance announced a new set of tools yesterday that aims to help show job seekers how skills they have built up in past jobs could be relevant to new jobs as the economy recovers.

Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit social enterprise with a mission to increase career opportunities for those they define as STARS, notes in its report that the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare current deficiencies in the labor market. They define STARs as those who have a high school diploma or equivalent and do not have a four-year college degree, but do have the skills to perform higher-wage work. Currently, they found that over 30 million STARs have the skills for jobs that pay, on average, 70 percent more than the jobs they are in today.  

The report, Navigating with the STARs: Reimagining Equitable Pathways to Mobility, notes that there are almost 10 million jobs that STARs could fill annually if the labor market properly valued their skills. STARs made 79.5 million job transitions from 2010-2019, but only 39 percent led to an increase in wages, while 37 percent led to lower wages and 23 percent were lateral moves. The report also analyzes the relationships of race and gender to job transitions and economic mobility and finds that the barriers to mobility faced by STARs pose even greater obstacles to Black, Hispanic, and women STARs.

Taking advantage of the skills learned through their jobs, tech bootcamps, community college programs, the military or other workforce training programs and moving people into better jobs would make us a more innovative nation says Opportunity@ Work Insights Manager Martin Evelyn.

The pandemic has highlighted the many occupations that frequently go unrecognized, like those on the frontline of the current crisis including hospital workers, grocery store workers, behind the scenes tech workers and others, many of which are filled by people of color and women. Government can play a role by ensuring more wrap-around services like transit, housing, child care, and educational financing options for workers. The government could also act as the convener to facilitate economic development in their region by thinking more strategically about the needs of employers and skills present in the workforce and help connect those interests through community colleges or other programs, Evelyn said.

There are workers in support roles now that have the skills necessary to move up into different roles. For example, a current need exists for more cybersecurity professionals than the few current programs across the country will be able to supply. But there are many in tech support roles that could transition into cybersecurity roles, Evelyn noted. The report identifies 51 different “gateway jobs” that open a pathway to upward mobility for those with the skills to advance. Evelyn noted it will take deliberate action to help people navigate into those roles, but a better economic outcome is the payoff. And while many have seized on the current moment to pivot to a new workforce model, Evelyn cautions that it is important to realize that it took a long time to get here, and the practices and policies in place will take time to remove. But, he added, there will be 10 million roles open next year that current STARs already have the skills to fill.

“It’s a journey, for sure,” he said, “but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a slow one.”

Opportunity@Work is part of the Rework America Alliance, a Markle initiative that is a nationwide collaboration to enable unemployed and low wage workers to emerge from this crisis stronger. Yesterday it announced a new suite of resources to help unemployed job seekers move into better jobs. Among those is a new resume builder that shows workers how skills from previous jobs can translate into new roles.

Stuart Andreason, director of the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta — also a partner in the alliance — said that many people who are in low-paying jobs that have been hurt by the pandemic, have the skills to move to better jobs, but don’t have a way to signal to employers about the skills they have. The new tool is an example of one way to help in that effort.

Andreason noted that 8.5 million people lost their jobs in the pandemic across just a handful of industries, like food service, retail and project management, and many of these newly unemployed have the skills to move to a job that pays more or provides better stability, benefits and wrap around supports. But because many of these workers lack a bachelor’s degree, they don’t have the same kind of signaling to get into the higher paying, higher quality jobs. Tools like the resume builder can help workers better identify jobs they can qualify for based on their experience.

Employers, too, can signal what kinds of skills they are looking for, said Sarah Miller, senior adviser at the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity. For instance, they can use a job-posting generator that is focused on skills. Miller said that the evidence they are seeing at the center supports employers moving in that direction and recognizing shorter paths to get people into their workforce.

Andreason and Evelyn both noted that there is no silver bullet or single tool that will solve the workforce dilemma and create greater opportunity and equity at once; instead it will require a collective effort.

“Every person that has some role in the labor market has to think differently, and this is really thinking differently,” Andreason said.

“I’m really hopeful that these are components of a broader platform that will help us think about a more inclusive labor market…. There are people that can do jobs really quite well that don’t really quite fit the traditional mold,” he added. “So the better we can match that, the better we will all be both in terms of inclusion and productivity.”

Such an effort will take everyone from higher education to state policy makers to regional leaders to workers to employers, Andreason noted. But he is hopeful that the country will come back from the pandemic in a better place. “I think there are a lot of people that are starting to realize that we can’t continue on the same pathway,” Andreason said.

workforce, labor force, inclusion