With the light growing ever brighter at the end of the pandemic tunnel, companies should prepare to ramp up operations and people should look forward to getting back to work.
With the light growing ever brighter at the end of the pandemic tunnel, companies should prepare to ramp up operations and people should look forward to getting back to work. As they do so, many companies, and the workers they employ, face a conundrum: The workplace has, or will, change and yesterday’s workforce might not be prepared to function efficiently in tomorrow’s world. Some companies have accelerated their automation efforts in order to decrease reliance on a human workforce vulnerable to numerous maladies and disruptions. Other companies are implementing technologies aimed at augmenting human activities. These technological advancements change the workplace in significant ways. Wendy Edelberg (@WendyEdelberg), Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute, and Paige Shevlin (@paige_larae), Policy Director at Rework America, insist this is a particular problem for people of color and people with limited education.
Edelberg and Shevlin explain, “The COVID-19 recession that began in March 2020 has had a disparate effect on workers depending on many factors: industry, occupation, level of education, parental status, race, and gender. For example, declines in employment have been largest for workers of color and those with less formal education. Such disproportionate effects owe in large part to the fact that those groups are overrepresented in the industries that have been particularly hard hit.” In many cases, those are the same industries that are looking to accelerate automation efforts. Edelberg and Shevlin conclude, “The challenge of long-term unemployment for some workers, coupled with the high likelihood that some industries will see weaker labor demand for some time, requires a workforce development strategy that supports workers who will need to switch industries and occupations.”
Journalists Jon Hilsenrath and Kate Davidson (@KateDavidson) report, “Driving down unemployment has become the overriding economic goal of top U.S. policy makers, an imperative that will shape many of the big decisions being made in Washington in the months ahead.” If Edelberg and Shevlin are correct, achieving full employment won’t be possible if workforce development strategies and programs are not put in place by governments and corporations. According to Hilsenrath and Davidson, achieving full employment is worth the effort and the cost. They observe that recent periods of low unemployment have been very beneficial for the country. “Instead of causing trouble associated in the past with an overheating economy,” they write, “low unemployment created a range of benefits that broadened prosperity. Wages rose, inequality diminished and poverty fell as businesses competed to hire scarce workers, benefiting Black people and other minorities in particular. Something similar happened in the late 1990s when unemployment was low. Because of that, top policy makers now see low unemployment as an end in itself.”
Here’s the rub. The Congressional Budget Office predicts it won’t be until 2024 before there are as many employed Americans as there were before the pandemic hit. However, if jobs are recovered at the pace recorded in January, it would take nearly 17 years to regain the pre-pandemic level of employment. I believe jobs will recover faster than the January rate, however, without the right policies and programs in place, it might take longer than the CBO is predicting. In order to future-proof the workforce, the staff at Explica suggests five skills marketers will need; however, I believe workers in most industries will need to cultivate similar skills. They include:
1. Ability to analyze data and make decisions accordingly. We live in the Digital Age and the lifeblood of most businesses is data. Explica analysts note, “Decisions must be backed up with data. Digital transformation gives us access to data, in various dimensional forms, but ultimately helps us reduce the margin of error.” Fortunately, cognitive technologies, like the Enterra Cognitive Core™ — a system that can Sense, Think, Act, and Learn® — employ natural language processing so that non-technical people can access advanced analytical insights. Workers will need to be trained to use these systems and will need to learn critical thinking skills to fully appreciate their capabilities.
2. Ability to organize and manage projects. Companies only stay in business if they are profitable; therefore, as the Explica analysts point out, companies are always looking to “do more with less.” Doing more with less means optimizing the three factors that makes companies successful: People, processes, and technology. As the Explica analysts note, “This implies that companies seek greater performance or profitability per person, and this forces us to grow our ability to execute.” With the right programs, workers can be retrained and upskilled to help make companies more successful. In some cases, the Explica team notes, this means “developing our ability to manage several projects or campaigns at the same time. This implies a lot of order, but at the same time the use of tools for project organization. These skills involve the proper use of indispensable project platforms. … Accelerated project management also implies taking advantage of social networks or instant messaging channels to streamline communication as part of these new required skills.” In many industrial settings, augmented reality systems are being implemented to make workers more efficient.
3. Ability to take advantage of automation. As noted above, many companies have accelerated automation efforts to reduce their reliance on human workers or to make workers more efficient. Explica analysts note, “Process automation, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing (machine learning) are new assets that we can take advantage of to do more with less, without losing the humanity of our connection with customers.”
Of course, various industries and individual companies have unique challenges; and, as a result, will have unique training and skill requirements. That’s why governments and companies must partner in order to ensure workers receive the right training and education to fill skills gaps now and in the future. This will be especially true for workers who are forced to change their occupation. Edelberg and Shevlin explain, “Federal support for workforce training, to help equip people with the different skills they will need for the different labor force they will return to, will be essential for a strong labor market recovery. That support will need to address affordability and access to training both outside and inside of companies. In addition, the most effective policies would ensure that workforce training is of high quality and leads to better labor market outcomes. Efforts to increase affordability are needed at community colleges, as many have proposed, but also at other training providers such as community-based training programs and union-connected training.”
Hilsenrath and Davidson report, “A growing body of research shows long-term unemployment has devastating consequences. Many quit looking; others turn to permanent disability rolls for income; measures of overall life satisfaction and health indicators tend to drop.” The Biden administration seems to understand those consequences. Heather Boushey, a member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Hilsenrath and Davidson, “The longer that you allow high unemployment to fester, the more scarring it has on workers, on families, and, of course in this recession especially, on small businesses. It really is important that we [reduce unemployment] quickly and the [administration] plan was built from the bottom up to really focus on that goal.” If the administration’s plan doesn’t include efforts retrain, reskill, and reeducate a large number of U.S. workers, the long-range success of the plan will be problematic. As an optimist, I believe the U.S. economy can recover, that we can achieve low unemployment rates, and ensure a better future for us and our children. It won’t happen naturally. It will take the best efforts of government policymakers and enlightened business and labor leaders.
 Wendy Edelberg and Paige Shevlin, “The critical role of workforce training in the labor market recovery,” Brookings Institute, 4 February 2021.
 Jon Hilsenrath and Kate Davidson, “The Biden Administration’s Elusive Stimulus Goal: Full Employment,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 February 2021.
 Staff, “An Overview of the Economic Outlook: 2021 to 2031,” Congressional Budget Office, February 2021.
 Staff, “5 skills to develop to succeed in digital transformation,” Explica, 5 February 2021.