With half of U.S. adults now fully vaccinated against Covid-19, many pandemic-related restrictions are slowly subsiding. That means more and more workers are heading back to the office in person. But not everyone is happy about it. According to a joint study (registration required) by the Lumina Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network and Gallup, 40% of employees have experienced worsening job quality since the pandemic started. A survey by Harvard Business School also found 81% of professionals “either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward.”
Just below the surface of these statistics lies the fact that dissatisfaction with one’s workplace often extends beyond the desire to circumvent petty office politics or avoid a long commute. Some workers may believe their professional development needs are largely being ignored. Others contend their existing skillsets and contributions aren’t valued or appreciated.
To some extent, both accounts are regrettably true. In fact, I believe what the pandemic has laid bare is our country’s woeful and historical disregard for “helping people who have been displaced by offshoring, automation, recessions, and other economic dislocation,” among many other challenges.
That’s why, amid our country’s steps toward building a post-pandemic society, we must continue to address the urgent need to strengthen our workforce. To this end, business and school leaders must commit to investing in — not just lip service — real, tangible changes to the ways they find, cultivate, train and retain workers. The time to do this vital work is now.
In my four-decades-long career as a corporate leader in the education technology, telecommunications, media and software sectors, I’ve seen how investments in people can lead to both an improved work culture and a better bottom line. Consider making investments such as:
• Identifying advancement opportunities for workers and pinpointing challenges related to the skills of an existing employee base.
• Crafting a customized plan that outlines the steps needed to train employees in their respective interest areas and then matching them with specific areas lacking within the company.
• Tracking employee productivity with the new skillset and monitoring efforts to close skills gaps within the company or organization.
Businesses that commit to the above investments and offer upskilling and reskilling programs are ahead of the rest in helping U.S. employees chart a new path forward.
Along these lines, I’ve seen some companies are stepping up their efforts to provide professional-level training that leads to high-paying jobs and don’t require a four-year college degree. From my perspective, these so-called “new-collar” jobs — which can include pharmacy technicians, computer programmers, dental assistants, cybersecurity specialists, technology-based manufacturing and agriculture positions and more — will be some of the most in-demand jobs of the next decade.
It’s worth noting that a renewed focus on new-collar jobs and workforce development is garnering growing bipartisan support, something we don’t always see in a partisan, politically charged climate. For example, part of the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan includes a goal to create at least one million new registered apprenticeships. And as Jeb Bush, a Republican and former governor of Florida, has said: “Our workforce and career preparation programs, in our school systems, colleges and various technical training centers, fail most Americans who want to better themselves.”
Some companies are already partnering with educational institutions to train a pipeline of qualified workers for their respective business needs. These efforts and others prove to me that neither access to a college degree nor lack of adequate training opportunities should be barriers to claiming a path to professional fulfillment.
According to a report released by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office earlier this year, the unemployment rate isn’t expected to return to “pre-pandemic levels” until 2024. This report is a stark reminder that we need to do much more to help our existing workforce hone new skill sets. But we also need to do more to educate and equip today’s students with the 21st-century skills and training they need to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow.
That means offering core coursework alongside internship, apprenticeship and other applied learning experiences. It means providing students with opportunities that connect what they’ve learned in the classroom with real-world settings and work environments. And it means rethinking scholarship programs and financing options that meet learners and working professionals where they are.
The pandemic has taught us that not confronting these issues sooner has done more harm than good. From my perspective, it can pit some workers against workplaces, foster an environment of mistrust and resentment and keep us from being the country we’re destined to be.
But we don’t have to carry on this way. In the months and years ahead, leaders can choose to use every lesson they’ve learned up until this point and every experience they’ve had or managed in the workplace as tools for helping others.
I think we all have a role to play — no matter who we are, where we’re employed or what we do. So, let’s get to work.