The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of Americans struggling to find a job. It also has made us take a hard look at the way we work and the way we prepare people for jobs and careers.

We’ve seen that the pathway from education to career is bumpy, irregular, and sometimes not well thought out. We’ve seen that many workers don’t know where to turn to acquire the skills they need in order to find a good-paying, in-demand job. And we’ve seen the adage proven true: talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.

2021 is a new year. It’s a chance to build on the progress we’ve made so far—and, yes, we have started to make progress. But, we all recognize there is a lot of work ahead.

On this, the final day of the year, we turn once again to our WorkingNation Advisory Board for their thoughts on what those next steps should be. Here is some of what they shared with us. Our thanks to them and all who serve on our board, our partners, those who advise us informally, and all those who share our vision.

Melissa Peak, global lead workforce strategy, Amazon Web Services (AWS)

“2020 was a year that humbled us all. It became clear that we are not the master of our own universes, and also that we are members of the greater family called humanity. Together we faced fear, made the best of each day, grieved the loss of family members/security as we knew it/future as we expected it and our sense of normalcy.

“The future remains unclear, and yet I am optimistic as the human spirit continues and is fiercely resilient. What more needs to be done? We must intentionally build the workforce/careers/skills needed, with an eye toward outcomes vs methods. This means: Get surgically specific on skill development programs for workers displaced through 2020.

“What are the adjacent skills these individuals have, that could be put to use in a new role/industry/career? What are the options for building the needed skills, and how can we accelerate the knowledge transfer? Employers must demand diverse hiring slates for all roles and develop every single hire for the job they have today as well as higher skill positions in the future.

“Have a Bias for Action: The current state of our workforce may not be our respective fault, but it is truly a problem we must each own and action against. Rather than wait for someone else to figure the solution out, we must engage as a community of career equippers to be the change we wish to see in this world.”

Les Range, independent economic and workforce development consultant

“In spite of the incredible challenges ahead, I am optimistic with the dawning of a new year. New national leadership will restore faith in our institutions and our workforce delivery mechanisms. As we undertake efforts to navigate the post-pandemic terrain, I believe we will be on a better path, one that seeks to improve the common good and not just individual and self interests.

“Our workforce is resilient and will recover, however it will never be the same as it was pre-COVID. There is one caveat. I think our education system will be impacted over the long term because with remote learning in some schools, I don’t think some students will have the educational level that could have prepared them for the workforce. I think you will see more remediation at the community college and university level.

“I think the pandemic will have some impact on our workforce in some areas because not everyone is getting what they need from an education level. I am optimistic that we can change to way we do business. I don’t know if we are on the right path in terms of the K-12 education system, but we can get there and the workforce is resilient because we all need jobs. People will do what they need to do to put food on the table but the system needs to also be able to provide opportunities.

“We all need to stress healthy living and wholesome relationships. This will help us as we work together to align with new realities we face. COVID has taught us the we’re all in this together and together we can find ways recover from what has been a tremendously stressful time in our existence.”

Michael Kelly, executive director, Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy & Jobs

“One aspect of workforce development that does not get enough attention is how it must start in the K-12 system. Our country continues to graduate students that are not fundamentally prepared financially, emotionally, and academically to persist in higher education or rigorous workforce training programs.

“Effective learning needs to improve, as well as exposure to career paths and the means by which individuals can pursue them.”

Gerald Chertavian, founder & CEO, Year Up

“We are optimistic because of the strong, ongoing demand for opportunity talent that we’ve seen from our corporate partners, as well as the leadership from corporations in looking to address racial inequalities through initiatives like OneTen. However, the number of opportunity youth has dramatically increased in the last year, with estimates that the number of disconnected youth will easily top six million and could grow to include almost one-quarter of all young people.

“Black and Latino young adults will be the hardest hit, and will face the highest barriers to reconnection. We’re on the right path in that corporate America is recognizing the need to change their talent practices, but we’ll need to develop accountability frameworks and metrics to ensure progress.

“Our focus needs to shift to kindergarten-to-career to create and promote a range of affordable pathways, starting in our middle and high schools and continuing on to some form of post-secondary education. Whether through apprenticeships, community colleges, the military, workforce development programs, or four-year colleges, we must support multiple entryways into the economic mainstream.

“We must also create systems that support ongoing learning and education so that workers can keep their skills current. Our workforce is resilient, but it needs support. By aligning incentives around measurable outcomes—for example, ensuring that every American has a viable pathway to a W-2 that grows over time—we can drive the reforms we need around education, talent and work in this country.”

Austan Goolsbee, professor of economics, University of Chicago Booth School of Business

“Are we on a path to righting the education-to-workforce system? A decentralized system never has a leader of the charge. We are still up in the air about what it will mean—will online trained workers or online credentialed workers end up performing as well as conventional ones? If not, it could actually set back the online training movement pretty significantly.

“What do we still need to do to ensure that the economy recovery is equitable? Get control of the spread of the virus. That’s number one, number two, and number three. A vaccine means that a year from now we are very likely to be out of the woods on this and the economy can try to go back to doing what it was doing before. The key question is whether we allow permanent damage to incur from a temporary disaster.”

Bridget Burns, founding executive director, University Innovation Alliance (UIA)

Bridget Burns headshot“The days ahead will be difficult, but we should not lose any of the lessons that we’ve learned from this period of time. Our colleges have made drastic changes and improvements to better e-connect education and the workforce.

“Next year, we will be releasing BGEE playbooks that every institution can use to re-imagine and design their career services to better support Black and brown students and students from low-income backgrounds better transition into the workforce upon graduation.

“My hope is that everyone is able to be a participant in realizing the American dream. We need real partnerships between higher education and employers, less transactional ones that do not support the root of the issue when it comes to preparing students for the workforce. Higher education institutions and employers need to continue to form intricate partnerships with one other so that we can prepare graduates to help them evolve and meet the needs of society.”

Paul Irving, chairman, Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

“We need tax reforms, elimination of certain preferences, and investment in underserved communities and communities of color, investment in public education, investment in science and technology that advances learning, public health, environmental change, and innovation. And we’ll need to provide financial and educational supports to workers in industries such as carbon-producing activities so they accept these inevitable shifts in economic priorities.

“This will be a tale of two roads—two cities—one of inequity, ill health, slow growth, environmental degradation and social divides; one of social and generational comity, enhanced and equitable public health and education, innovation and economic vitality, and environmental sanity. You can imagine my aspirations, but the battle for a better future will not be easy.

“To workers I say, hang in there, let your voices be heard, vote, be activists, learn, understand that policy matters, and hope that our leaders do the right and moral thing and provide needed supports.”

Gary Officer, president and CEO, Center for Workforce Inclusion

“I am always hopeful about this country. As an immigrant, I am always inspired by the can-do spirit that permeates throughout this great country. I am optimistic because we are, at our core, a resilient nation.

“I am inspired by the young people of this country who led the charge for change under the banner of Black Lives Matter. This is a generation of young people that will power this nation towards a better version of ourselves. They will help us tap into our better angels and move us past the divisions of the last few years.

“We are all on the same team. Let us work together to build a stronger and more resilient economy. Let us also build an inclusive economy, on which all Americans can enjoy a rightful place seat at the table and, where every worker will have an equal opportunity to realize their full potential.”

If you missed part one of this series, published on December 24, you can find it here: Thoughts on 2020, our workforce, and talent development from our WorkingNation Advisory Board

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