Every job has been impacted by the pandemic. Millions have become unemployed and many others have seen the very nature of their work change dramatically. It has revealed social and economic vulnerabilities in the United States that have been persisting under the surface for far too long.
This means that we’re at an inflection point — a chance to rewrite the rules and reset the values that are imbued into our system. At the 2020 Horizons Conference, hosted by Jobs for the Future, academics, authors, business leaders, educators, and industry experts came together virtually for 4 days of panels and discussions around the topic of workforce development and labor reform.
Although I didn’t attend every session, below is a summary of some of recurring issues and ideas discussed over the course of the week. If you were an attendee, please share any additional lessons in the comments. Although registration has closed, I highly encourage anyone who’s interested to review the program highlights here.
To start, it’s important to remember that our labor system did not enter the pandemic environment from a place of strength. In their session on The New Social Contract @ Work, Professor Thomas Kochan and Barbara Dyer of MIT Sloan reminded us all that employment prospects have been trending in the wrong direction since the 1980s, after which wages and productivity have decoupled, leaving more and more workers seeing no change in their income despite industry prosperity. Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance spoke out about the federal regulations that have historically excluded domestic workers from basic legal protections.
So are some of the effects the pandemic having on this already unhealthy system?
- The pain is harshest for minorities and hospitality workers: In a panel on Data Driven Recovery, the speakers illustrated that unemployment rate for African Americans and Asian Americans has not leveled off. They projected devastating long-term effects on hospitality-focused cities including Las Vegas and LA, as well disproportionate impact on Gen X and minorities. Leaders of the hospitality, restaurants, and retail grocery industries discussed the struggle of mass layoffs in their industries, with Shelly Weir of the AHLA stated starkly that the pandemic has, “erased three and a half decades of job growth in the hotel industry.”
- More employees may be subject to gig and precarious work: Harvard Business School professor Joseph Fuller gave covered a variety of topics in his insightful session, and anticipates that as companies struggle to forecast future demand, they will remain incredibly conservative in their hiring practices. When they can hire, they will show a preference for independent contractors and contingent workers. This may aggravate existing issues with lack of sick leave and income instability.
- 40% of jobs will not come back: When former Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang spoke, he refuted the fantasy that we will ‘return to normal.’ Behaviors have changed, companies are incentivized to do more with less, automation and touchless operations will be adopted, and Americans will be left behind. He concluded that, “for a lot of those people it will result in destitution, desperation, and disintegration. You’re already seeing a mental health crisis get compounded by the pandemic. You’re going to see massive surges in substance abuse, deaths of despair, people needing social assistance.”
- Educational efforts are inhibited by digital access: There were many sessions on topics related to upskilling, reskilling, lifelong learning, and programs that create onramps into new careers. But laced into all of those conversations was the plague of the digital divide and digital literacy. In a discussion between leaders of higher degree education institutions, Paul LeBlanc of of Southern New Hampshire University explained that, “We’re finding real inequity in terms of access, which is sort of like access to highways, it’s just so basic if you’re not connected.” This includes adequate computers, access to the internet, and confidence in using technology.
Prospects for Better Outcomes
There is no silver bullet answer, but all speakers stressed the need to collaborate across industries as we reevaluate and rebuild. This included JFF itself, who announced its Recover Stronger initiative to mobilize employers to put people at the forefront of economic recovery.
So how might we all move forward?
- Focus on the social determinants of work: Several companies and nonprofits emphasized the importance of wrap-around services. This included Jake Soberal, of ed-tech company called Bitwise, who relayed, “what is non-obvious is that the learner who is coming from a story of poverty also needs you to address issues of transit, of childcare, of food insecurity. If we’re able to address those obstacles we are able to access the genius for industry that that individual can bring to the table.” Private enterprise has a role to play in serving these needs, but more importantly points to failure of our government for leaving so many without access to affordable health care or public transportation infrastructure.
- Apprenticeships and business-education collaborations: 4-year degrees are not producing the same returns as in previous generations, and leaving too many saddled with debt. Apprenticeships have been shown to have high rates of completion and job retention, making them a meaningful prospect to allow workers to learn and earn. As Orrian Willis of TechSF explained, “there is this new ethos, in tech at least, which is we don’t always have to be consumers of talent. We can move to be developers of talent.” In addition, as skills become obsolete and organizational needs change, education providers need to work hand-in-hand with industry to build training programs. In a panel on Facing Race in Postsecondary Reform, Tonjua Williams of St. Petersburg College spoke about the role of community colleges, saying, “I believe that companies need to come along side us and tell us what they’re planning for the future. Tell us now so that we can build the training for it, so that you can have that pipeline.”
- Changing workplace cultures and engrained practices: Around hiring practices, Jason Green SkillSmart discussed, “one challenge that we work on employers with quite a bit is their reliance on proxies. Those proxies like a 4-year degree, in instances when that 4-year degree is not necessary to the work at hand, can be a significant barrier to entry for entire segments of the population.” When it comes to power and decision-making authority, Yolanda Watson Spiva of Complete College America emphasized that we must, “diversify, not just who is at top in some of these philanthropies and corporations, who sits on their boards, but also who makes decisions at middle management, so that there are practical applications of what we’re talking about here.”
- Economic dignity for working people: Sarita Gupta of the Ford Foundation spoke about the importance of worker rights, protections and voice, expanding that, “We believe that all workers, regardless of whether they are permanent, informal, contracted or gig jobs, should have equal rights to robust labor protections. You should not have to put your life at risk when working. We as a nation should guarantee social protections for all workers. Paid sick days and paid leave. In other words, you have the capacity not only care for your family, but to be there for life’s most meaningful and joyful and sometimes sad moments.” It’s time to move beyond poverty wages for these essential jobs, and treat workers as valuable stakeholders in the economic system.
Providing better jobs is not just an issue of economic concern. Several speakers invoked the powerful context of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of the 1960s. Several weeks before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the workers, who were demanding sufficient wages and safety protections, in what is now known as his, All Labor Has Dignity speech, stating,
One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the ﬁnal analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the context of today’s riots against police brutality, and the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on the health and employment of African Americans, there is no escaping the fact that efforts to address workplace inequities are inextricably linked to building social and political stability.
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