This essay first appeared in the Milken Institute’s Power of Ideas collection focused on building and rebuilding lives in the face of the #COVID19 pandemic. The essay series features insights from thought leaders across industries.
We’ve been hearing the warnings for the past few years: “There’s a skills gap in America.” “Workers need to be upskilled to fill the new jobs that will be created by rapidly changing technology.” “We need to train and prepare our workers now for jobs in the future.”
The warnings were right. The timing was off. The future is now. The need to upskill our workers has never been more urgent.
“The future is now. The need to upskill our workers has never been more urgent.”
More than 40 million people have lost their jobs or were furloughed since the economy began to shut down in mid-March to combat the spread of COVID-19. What economists and thought leaders were forecasting would take place over the next decade—a remaking of the workforce, placing more emphasis on employees having strong digital and technical skills—happened in a few short weeks.
Here’s why. With COVID-19 stay-at-home, work-at-home orders in place, America’s businesses had to immediately reinvent the way they served their customers, often demanding new skills and tasks from their employees. Processes were streamlined. Businesses learned to do more with less. Meetings went online. Workers learned new tech skills.
Industries that were able to seamlessly make the switch to working remotely almost overnight learned a lot about what skills and tools their employees really need to be productive. Moving forward, these businesses can be more selective about who they hire. They will be more selective. They will be looking for agile workers, workers with the tech skills they need and who are adaptable to change.
This is not just true in white-collar industries that could continue to work virtually if they choose to do so. Industries from infrastructure to transportation to hospitality have relied more and more on digital and tech tools over the years.
Now, as brick-and-mortar businesses reopen—amid what we now know to be a recession that started in February—employers have a much bigger pool of talent from which to pluck their employees. They, too, will be selective. They, too, will want workers who can be more productive, able to handle the time-saving tech tools at their disposal.
For that reason, there has never been a more important time to talk about how to help prepare our people and our communities for the new face of the future of work. To help the millions of newly unemployed get back to work, we need to arm them with the skills they need to be competitive in the quickly evolving workplace.
“There has never been a more important time to talk about how to help prepare our people and our communities for the new face of the future of work.”
This is not an impossible task—quite the opposite. There are programs and initiatives that are already addressing this challenge every day. They are already making a difference and can lead by example.
There’s a demonstrated, ongoing demand for IT technicians, data scientists, and cloud computer programmers. Amazon Web Services partnered with California Community Colleges to create a curriculum and an industry-recognized certificate in cloud computing that can be completed in just a little more than a year.
The Home Builders Institute offers training programs in communities across the country. Through online and hands-off learning, displaced workers, veterans, and young adults get the skills they need to work in the building trades in good-paying careers such as electrical wiring, HVAC, carpentry, and solar installation.
For working adults juggling their job with their family life, finding the money or opportunity to learn a new skill or earn a degree can be hard. Employers like Walmart are addressing that challenge through its Live Better U program, which offers a “$1 a day” employment benefit for any of its 1.4 million associates wanting to go back to college or learn a trade.
STRIVE is working with local employers in 20 cities to upskill underserved communities in growth industries such as health care, construction, and food service, then help place their program graduates in jobs.
We all need to do our part. This will mean collectively leaning into the change and being vocal about the opportunities available to reskill and retrain, and sharing these solutions within our areas of focus, industries, and regions.
A healthy nation is a working nation.