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Rebuilding America's Workforce Post-COVID

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Challenges in workforce development aren't new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the struggle to close the gap between workers’ capabilities and employers’ needs. Merit hosted a discussion with workforce experts on the best new strategies to build a stronger workforce.

Read on for our recap and see the full webinar here.

By 2025, a shift in the division of labor between people and machines could erase approximately 85 million jobs, according to the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, 97 million roles may emerge to address the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.

Because of continuously changing work roles and workplaces, the focus is now on aptitudes, as well as behavioral and soft skills, that are not easily replaced by automation. Educational institutions are responding to these workforce needs and incorporating such training into core subjects.

"What we're talking about here is about bolting on skills beyond basic literacy and numeracy, looking at behavioral and soft skills, along with areas like communication and critical thinking,” John Weiner, chief science officer of global assessment firm PSI, said in the webinar. “The whole idea is to create skills that are useful for an individual to adapt and continue learning, not just have very specific micro-skills in credentialing."

Addressing the opportunity gap

The economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic has broadened the skills gap, according to the World Economic Forum. The upheaval calls for employers and the government to make new commitments to upskilling and re-skilling for individual and digital skills. That includes the need for employers to increase their initiatives for retraining workers and the government to provide for these initiatives the massive fiscal stimulus for economies

There is also an opportunity gap – meaning many good candidates who are Black, Latino, or Indigenous don’t even get in the pipeline to compete for top jobs, according to a Brookings Institute report. It highlighted the need to focus on closing the opportunity gap for workers who are out of the labor market. Fostering diverse talent helps fuel a healthier economy, innovation, and a stronger community, the report said.

Major workforce development trends

Big shifts have emerged in workforce development at the state and federal levels, with a movement committed to drilling down skills and competencies within degrees and non-degree credentials. We highlight some of the different frameworks and models being used, including:

  • Federal-level models
  • Education-oriented models
  • Employer-driven models

Federal-level models

One great example of a smart federal-level model of addressing the skills gap is O*NET, an occupational network sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. It offers a standardized approach to profiling jobs, based on dozens of components involving cognitive skills, personality, work style interests, and psychomotor skills, according to Weiner.

O*NET's profiling uses are twofold: people looking at careers and organizations developing career paths can both use this as a vital resource.

Education-oriented models

A competency-based training program is sensitive to soft skills and interpersonal relationships that are successful in the occupational space, building that opportunity for lifelong or episodic learning through apprenticeships.

Matt Austin serves as the general counsel and director of education for Apprenti, a program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) Workforce Institute that helps connect underrepresented groups for the tech industry.

"The nice thing about apprenticeships is that, as one of the oldest educational models, they're stackable,” Austin continued. “You can enter the tech sector in an entry-level role, a systems administration role, a cloud support role, even a junior software developer role. And as you get established, you work for a while, and when you are looking to advance your career, you then have that next episode of learning."

Employer-driven models

The employer-led framework exhibits a massive shift toward training and alignment. Dr. Steven Taylor, of the Greater Washington Partnership, a regional civic alliance stretching from Baltimore to Richmond, explained that deep employer engagement is needed to ensure workers and opportunities are being properly matched.

Dr. Taylor discussed how, as the alliance collected data and talked with employers in the D.C. region, they learned that what the labor market was saying was different from what employers required. The alliance found employers were not updating job descriptions quickly enough to reflect the actual demand in the tech skills needed.

Partnering with the right workforce organizations, he said, can help employers develop better strategies to find the right talent and develop upskilling programs to help meet their needs.

Credentials without question

Dr. Taylor challenged the focus of employers on where an applicant’s study took place and not what learning occurred.

"That institution's name brand took precedence over what an applicant learned and how they demonstrated what they know,” he said. “As a result, our trust in the learning infrastructure is laid mainly with reputation and accreditation. This fact leaves many things out, like quality indicators and assessments, like where the learning occurred.”

“If we look at credentials without question, we need to make sure that any validation schema focuses on what was learned and verified instead of focusing solely on the place of study," he added.

Empowering individuals

How can we help empower individuals to persevere when so many are displaced?

Matt Austin said finding the way toward jobs is not something anybody honestly knows how to do. It's a process. To achieve success in their career building, an individual doesn't have to be the top student in every class but needs to be a well-rounded student. Austin said that from an assessment standpoint, they must understand their strengths.

John Weiner added that a good career assessment program linked to occupational learning information could drive individual perseverance. It's about setting people up for success and not putting them into positions where they'll struggle or be doomed.

New opportunities to gain experience

Everyone is gaining skills through experiences in civic life, the workplace, personal life, and faith-based settings, said Dr. Taylor. Individuals should be conscious about their experiences, know what they're learning, ask questions, and find ways to put them into practice elsewhere.

Learn more: Watch the full webinar for more expert insights

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