As America continues to emerge from the pandemic’s grip, several economists — including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell — anticipate a wave of job creation in the second half of the year, and some expect the U.S. economy to achieve a level of growth we haven’t seen in 30 years.
For a nation hungry for good news, these are welcome predictions. But as automation continues to redefine the work of the future, our national labor market has reached a critical juncture. A point where smart machines are automating jobs and tasks across every sector of our economy. A point where technology is creating new capabilities, products, and services — and with it, the demand for skilled talent to manage and develop them.
The critical question becomes: Is America ready for this projected tsunami of skilled jobs?
Survey data suggests that we’re not ready and that it’s time to change how we train and upskill our workforce.
A recent Kelly survey reveals employers’ and workers’ views on upskilling. Eight in 10 managers say workers need more education, credentials, or training. And 73 percent of workers say they would pursue upskilling opportunities if their employer offered them. But nearly half of workers (47%) say they don’t understand which skills matter most to employers.
To remake our post-pandemic workforce and to ride the wave of in-demand skilled jobs, more employers must clearly define the knowledge, skills, and abilities they require. They must look at workers through a skills lens and provide pathways to help them obtain requisite learning. This “learn while you earn” approach will play an increasingly vital role in preparing people for “human work” — the work that machines will never be able to do.
This approach benefits workers across America every day. Consider Jaquan, a military veteran who works on a digitally-driven assembly line that produces contact lenses. A former radio operator, Jaquan received on-the-job training to operate sophisticated molding machines. His position requires him to troubleshoot issues along the fully robotic production line, and he is proudly picking up the skills needed for that job.
To help more workers like Jaquan develop the skills they need, federal and state policymakers and education providers must adopt a more transparent, accessible, and open-minded approach to awarding and valuing industry certifications and other short-term credentials. This is needed because one in four workers say they don’t know where to acquire new skills, and more than half (51%) are worried about how to pay for it.
In addition to taking these necessary steps, we must also dramatically expand the availability of employment and upskilling opportunities across the nation. Every day, longstanding obstacles keep millions of Americans from connecting to work. These barriers — largely regulatory injustices and outdated biases — must be knocked down before we can build a workforce ready to meet the job growth economists are predicting.
These barriers include blanket bans on workers with a criminal record — which includes tens of millions of American adults — bias in favor of bachelor’s degrees when quality short-term credentials may suffice, as well as other discriminatory policies affecting neurodiverse individuals and others. In many cases, employers unknowingly keep discriminatory hiring practices on the books even while publicly proclaiming their commitment to racial equity and inclusion.
A recent survey commissioned by Kelly found that Americans want employers and policymakers to act on this issue — and that they will reward companies who do so. Four in five Americans (81%) say companies should do more to remove discriminatory hiring policies or practices. And 78% say policymakers should do the same. In turn, 76% of Americans say they are more likely to support a business or company that is committed to breaking down barriers that prevent Americans from finding employment.
We’ve reached a critical juncture in the history of work in America. It’s time to change our approach, to learn and hire in new ways so we can expand and upskill our workforce. Doing so will enrich the lives of workers and their families and help build a more productive and inclusive society.
Peter Quigley is president and CEO of Kelly, a talent solution partner to the majority of Fortune 100 companies and a direct employer of nearly 370,000 people worldwide.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”