Five Reasons the Public Workforce System Should be Doubling Down on Virtual Services

by Michele Martin

As more people are getting vaccinated and the possibility of reopening American Job Centers looms large, many state and local workforce agencies may be thinking that it’s time to return to the pre-pandemic days of providing only in-person services to America’s unemployed. The past 13 months have been challenging for professional workforce and reemployment staff and for job seekers as the workforce and unemployment system struggled to adapt to virtual, work-from-home conditions. As such, the desire to return to “normal” is understandable.

It would be a significant missed opportunity, however, to not take the lessons learned in the past year and use them to expand and vastly improve the workforce and unemployment system’s capacity to help job seekers in an online environment. The “Suddenly Virtual” environment of a year ago can become “Strategically Virtual” now, with states and local areas utilizing the new tools they’ve learned and the staff skill development they invested in to create a more comprehensive, agile, and scalable suite of supports for today’s and future job seeker customers.

Here are five reasons the public workforce and reemployment system should be doubling down on virtual services at this point, not pulling back.

1. The workforce and reemployment system doesn’t have the physical infrastructure to serve the millions of people who need help. Even if American Job Centers and Employment Services offices could fully open their doors tomorrow, it would be physically impossible to provide services to all the people that need them. The lines of people looking for help with Unemployment Insurance last summer show that in-person services have limits, and the most effective reemployment offices, Workforce Development Boards, and American Job Centers will be the ones that have looked at how virtual services can complement and supplement the in-person approach.

2. Virtual services free up in-person space for the people who need and want it the most. The digital divide is certainly real. Not everyone can access online services from home. This means that given limited space, states and local areas should prioritize in-person use for those who need it the most. When all customers are required to visit in person, this creates crowded conditions and long waits for service that could be avoided. Offering quality virtual services means that those who really need and want in-person help can be accommodated.

3. Virtual services can reach job seekers who don’t normally visit American Job Centers or who are not in the Unemployment Insurance system. One of the most consistent opinions voiced by Workforce Development Boards and American Job Centers, including reemployment staff, is that they are the “best-kept secret” in their communities. Part of the reason for this belief is because they have, up until 2020, only provided in-person services. Fundamentally, customers who prefer online support generally have not used the services unless they have been required to as part of receiving some type of governmental assistance that mandates they use the service in whatever form it is (or was) provided. The past year has shown that many people actually prefer virtual services, especially people with disabilities, those with childcare and transportation issues, and the many job seekers who are accustomed to conducting their lives online. Requiring people to access services only in person means that many will not get the help they need. Virtual services can be more convenient and accessible, which increases the likelihood that a wider variety of job seekers will take advantage of them.

4. Virtual services can help states and local areas effectively leverage resources. Most state and local workforce and reemployment offices are understaffed and are duplicating services, particularly when it comes to workshops and presentations. In an online environment, a single workshop or employer panel can accommodate hundreds (if not thousands) of job seekers. These could be coordinated across multiple geographic and/or Workforce Development Board areas, freeing staff for other duties. Further, these sessions can then be recorded and viewed by people who were unable to attend a live virtual event. Recordings can also be repackaged as part of online guides and toolkits that job seekers can use to educate themselves about the job search at times that are most convenient for them.

5. Companies are becoming more virtual in hiring and job seekers need more opportunities to practice with virtual tools. The trend toward online hiring, including online applications, virtual interviewing, and more virtual work arrangements is here to stay. Job seekers need opportunities to practice with virtual tools such as Zoom and Google Drive. Reemployment offices and American Job Centers can provide this “safe space” as part of their virtual service delivery. The more that unemployed workers and job seekers become comfortable with online tools and spaces, the more effective they’ll be in the job search and at work.

As tempting as it may be to return to “normal” now, it’s critical that the public workforce and reemployment system think seriously and more strategically about how to turn the crisis of the past year into the opportunities of the next 10 years. In other words, they should use this moment to create a “better-than-normal” service delivery system. The pandemic accelerated online life in ways we couldn’t imagine a year ago. If the U.S. workforce and reemployment system doesn’t adapt and learn from this past year’s experiences to enhance virtual service delivery, it is likely to become increasingly irrelevant to future job seekers in the years ahead.

Michele Martin is Director of Technical Assistance at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development and Director of the New Start Career Network.

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Outlines how the public workforce system can use technology and community partnerships to expand services, address job seeker mental and emotional well-being, and ensure that a broader range of the public is able to access supports.

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Heldrich Center for Workforce Development

Heldrich Center for Workforce Development

Founded in 1997, the Heldrich Center is devoted to transforming the workforce development system at the local, state, and federal levels.

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