Challenges facing our workforce won’t go away on January 1. So, what do we do next?

WorkingNation Advisory Board members share their thoughts on potential solutions to workforce issues in the new year

As we move into the new year, the surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 threatens to disrupt the workforce once again. Medical research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the omicron variant causes milder symptoms that the first strains of the coronavirus, but the sheer number of people becoming ill is making employers and workers concerned about what is in store for them in the weeks and months ahead.

Heath concerns are not the only challenges our workforce faces in 2022. It has been well-documented that the coronavirus pandemic has sped up changes in the way we work and has shone a very bright light on inequities in the way we train, educate, screen, hire, and retain talent. It also has prompted us to think about ways in which we can address these issues and put forth new solutions that will benefit both the employee and employer.

The new year is a time of reflection. So, we asked members of our WorkingNation Advisory Board—leaders from business, academia, and nonprofits – to weigh in on two questions around the workforce of 2022:

  1. What is the biggest challenge facing our labor force – workers and employers – in the new year and how do we move toward solving it?
  2. Given all the challenges and inequities surfaced in the workforce over the past two years, what still needs to be done to build a more inclusive workforce in the coming year?

Here, in their own words, is some of what they had to say.

John Hope Bryant
Founder & CEO, Operation Hope

“As the pandemic rages on with new variants of the coronavirus emerging, it is apparent that a modified work environment is here to stay. A primary challenge for employers is adapting to this new reality. Workers have had time to rethink and reimagine their role in the workplace and demand that they’re recognized as one of the organization’s most valuable assets.

“It all boils down to this: humans have a hard time changing. For months, companies big and small alike have rolled out ‘return to work’ plans that keep getting pushed back repeatedly. The funny thing is, they are still holding out hope that things will return to normal, and they simply won’t. COVID-19 continues to take lives, disrupt our economy, and push our health care system to its limit, especially in minority and underserved communities.

“While the challenge is complex and multifaceted, the starting solution is a simple three-prong process. First, we must continue to promote worker health and wellbeing by encouraging vaccinations as the best and most effective method of preventing severe illness and hospitalization and enforce COVID safety protocols, including mask-wearing and social distancing.

“Second, employers need to begin listening and taking workers’ concerns seriously. We are in the midst of the Great Resignation and suffering a labor shortage. Many corporations thought they would call their employees’ bluff, but they are learning the hard way that there’s been a paradigm shift. It is incumbent upon us to meet the moment and find new ways to engage employees and help create a hybrid, virtual and/or work-from-home environment that’s conducive to both company and employee success.

“Third, we need to retrain our workforce to have a winning mindset in the workplace. Time management, stress reduction, and financial wellness best practices are all topics that need to be built into a company’s culture. This kind of retraining and reeducation not only increases worker productivity but also signals to workers that they are valued.

“Beyond the challenges we face from the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations continue to grapple with issues of equity and inclusion. Admittedly, some progress has been made, but we must remain vigilant and intentional in creating opportunities for growth and advancement in our workplaces. Simply creating a role for DE&I and putting a Black or Brown face in the position will not do. We can combat the historic oversights and lack of diversity by creating programs and pipelines to fill high-level, senior roles, which in turn and over time creates a culture of mentorship and equal opportunity for workers to thrive and flourish.”

Melissa Peak
Global Lead, Workforce Strategy, Amazon Web Services

“2022 presents incredible opportunity for the labor force, workers and employers alike. The key to optimizing on that opportunity will be the ability to innovate, in the flow of work. For example, regardless of prior management and HR methods, new strategies, and mindsets (e.g. modified work-weeks, new benefits that meet the needs of a COVID-enabled workforce, and employee-centric engagement models) will divide the truly-innovative and faux-innovative firms.

“For talent, it will be essential to understand transferrable skills, aligned with adopting a product mindset for professional branding. What does your customer need? Are you speaking the language of your customer? The market is truly a candidate’s market, so it is essential to understand and message what makes you unique.

“How do we solve it? Re-think everything. Why are we doing things like this? Is there a better way? How is this approach working for us/ for me personally? This analysis is the first step in driving innovation, and must be part of both executive strategy sessions, and personal career planning in 2022.

“Inclusive workforces are the result of a) executive leadership committment, b) shared accountability at all levels, and c) individuals empowered and equipped to speak up when they are experiencing or seeing non-inclusive behavior.  For 2022, allies and empowered talent will be the catalyst for continued momentum in building an inclusive workforce. Collectively, we will raise the bar on accountability and speak up when inequality is observed.”

Philip Weinberg
President & CEO, STRIVE

“The biggest challenge facing our labor force today is our nation’s persistent opportunity gap, which results in enormous missed opportunities for both employers and those seeking jobs. 

“Our country has incredible talent that is often overlooked and undervalued, especially in communities of color.  As a result, many talented individuals don’t have access to the kinds of careers that can lift them and their families into higher wages and new life possibilities.

“And to exacerbate this situation, many employers create unnecessary hiring hurdles that prevent talented individuals from accessing their open jobs. These hiring hurdles include unnecessary degree requirements, restrictions on people with a criminal record, and many layers of systemic biases that particularly harm Black and Brown job applicants. 

“The good news is that there are steps we can take right now to tackle the opportunity gap, which would offer enormous upside to companies and to creating an economy that is more inclusive and just. On the supply side, we can invest in scaling high-quality “on-ramps”, which are organizations that support and prepare historically marginalized people for careers with the possibility of upward mobility.  On the demand side, companies can rethink their hiring practices and requirements, and in doing so, remove the hurdles that stand in the way of an enormous pool of untapped talent in our country. 

“Taking these steps to close the opportunity gap is a win-win. It’s good for business and good for creating a more fair, just and equitable society.”

Carol Eggert
SVP, Military & Veterans Affairs, Comcast NBCUniversal

When thinking about the challenges facing those transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce many of the issues will continue to be present in 2022. The continued civilian military divide impacts veteran transition. On the part of the employers, there remains a lack of an understanding of the skills military talent brings, and that are often the skills needed to face the demands of an ever-changing workforce.

“On the part of transitioning service members, there continues to be a lack of awareness of the structure, financial benefits and culture of the private sector. There are hundreds of programs available to connect transitioning veterans and employers but they are not easy to find or participate in for either party.

“Given all the challenges and inequities surfaced in the workforce over the past two years, what still needs to be done to build a more inclusive workforce in the coming year? We must continue to invest in programs that build a common understanding and appreciation of military talent and also in programs that assist transition service members. This is needed no matter the changing demands of the workforce environment.”

Paul Irving
Senior Fellow, Milken Institute

“There is no single challenge facing America’s labor force. Automation and AI displace jobs, and strategies to re-skill those displaced are inadequate. Employers search for specific skills, but workers are too often unprepared. With a care crisis evolving, direct care workers are strained and under-compensated.

“Education systems, both K-12 and college, are misaligned with the workforce needs of the future. Older workers are adversely impacted by ageist policies and practices, and few employers have planned for the realities of a new workforce demography. 

“We recognize inequities in wealth and health, but not enough in work. The pandemic made that clear. What was tolerable for professional workers, telecommuting from suburban homes, was intolerable for essential workers exposed to risky work environments and juggling care responsibilities for children at home and vulnerable aging parents.

For the good of individuals and families, and to ensure American competitiveness, multi-sectoral, future-focused national and regional labor strategies should be at the top of the agenda. It’s time that enlightened leaders convene all who can make a difference, from education, health, technology, unions, management, academia, policy, philanthropy and more to innovate and develop pilot programs, and to scale and spread big ideas and change.

“The lessons learned and the suffering and loss of life during the COVID pandemic cannot be wasted. We can no longer look away from those who sacrificed so much.

“Essential workers, typically immigrants and people of color and often older, struggle with poor working conditions, inadequate rewards, and the challenges of family care. Yet these are the individuals who have delivered our food, cared for our elders, and kept our economy going during a lockdown. Can we afford to provide them with better education, health care, and housing, more flexible schedules, the opportunity for career evolution and growth, and the dignity and respect that their roles deserve? COVID has taught us that we can’t afford not to.”

Ellen Hughes-Cromwick
Senior Resident Fellow, Third Way

“Ongoing pandemic uncertainty will remain the biggest challenge. Vaccinations and testing remain important tools for labor mkt normalization. Following on this, child care will remain a constraint. Passing BBBA will provide resources for families, especially women, to engage again in the labor force.  

“Workforce training, digital matching if employers/employees, and apprenticeships are proven valuable tools. Outreach to disadvantaged communities is key. This is a community by community effort at the local level. IIJA and BBBA have funding to assist on this.”

Matt Horton
Director, Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics & California Center
“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated job displacement and unemployment trends—precipitated by advancements in technology and automation. While automation has enhanced productivity, it has also eliminated jobs and reshaped the skills needed for others.

“The speed and scale at which advancements in technology is influencing jobs growth not only requires adaptation and reskilling from workers and education systems but broad investment that enhances access and economic mobility in a rapidly changing landscape.

“Although these disruptive forces impacting the workforce are not new, they do exacerbate long-standing social inequities embedded in our pre-COVID economic landscape.

“In order to address the intrinsic elements of inequality in our economy – we must first recalibrate the development model that has historically directed opportunity toward some, while leaving others behind. By leveraging digital skills platforms and coordinating career pathways programs across emerging technology and growth sectors, leaders can provide skill-based curriculum to better fill gaps and meet critical workforce needs while addressing lingering social mobility constraints.”

Gary Officer
Founder & CEO, CWI Labs

Let’s be honest. 2021 cannot end soon enough for many Americans. For almost two years, we have lived through one of the most traumatic periods since the formation of our Republic. For many across our nation, the lingering after-effects of the most significant—and life changing—period of social isolation, job loss, and general economic uncertainty have had a profound impact on the physical and mental well-being of our nation’s workforce. The challenge for 2022 will reside less in how we overcome our recent past and more on how we embrace a very different future.

“The most recent U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report offers a revealing portrait on what to anticipate in 2022. According to the December 6TH BLS report, there are 10.6 million available jobs in this country—while 4.6 million Americans have quit their jobs during the reporting period. The reason for the gap, while layered in complexity, is also rather simple to untangle as two main causes emerge. First, we currently have more jobs than job seekers because large numbers of Americans are currently lacking the skills required for the jobs available. Second, COVID has forced a profound reassessment among the American workforce on what they will or will not tolerate from their employers in terms of benefits and flexibility. In 2022, we will begin to see how these two critical issues will resolve, with far reaching consequences for generations to come.

“Many within the workforce development policy community have long predicted the future of work will gradually unfold over the next decade. Fueled by rapid technological advancement, we have long witnessed the gradual attrition of traditional jobs due to automation. However, because of the pandemic, the long journey of incremental changes within the workforce has become a sprint. Almost overnight, we have experienced the emergence of what the workforce of the future will look like. For black and brown communities, lack of preparedness for tomorrow’s jobs will further widen the opportunity gap between our minority communities and their white counterparts. More worryingly, if left unchecked, this gap may fuel future social unrest and civil discord. A determined effort must be made now to address these issues. 

“What gives me hope?

“I have confidence in the resilience of the American worker. Labor and innovation drove our great manufacturing age. Twenty-first century innovation is driving every facet of change in our lives. We are a country of immigrants, workers, and innovators. With the benefit of time, this country has always made the necessary adjustments based on new realities. We will do it again.

“I am also hopeful that the Build Back Better bill currently making its way through Congress if passed, will release significant human capital investment into our economy. The success of this investment, and the ability of these funds to generate corresponding levels of investment from the business community, will be the defining legacy of the Biden Presidency. I am hopeful because there is too much at stake if we fail.”

Gary Officer’s answers are excerpted from a longer essay, which he wrote for in response to our questions.
You can read The Biggest Challenge of 2022 here.

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