Remember the good old days? You know, the days when the biggest things we had to worry about, relative to the workforce, were matters like widening skills gaps, Baby Boomers retiring, shortages of affordable housing, and lengthening commute times.
Well, most of us would give anything to return to those headaches of 2019. When COVID-19 hit America in late February and early March, those concerns quickly gave way to a whole new world of worries.
As one business after the other failed and job losses mounted to historic levels, America was suddenly dealing with the biggest challenges our economy had faced since the Great Depression. By late June, more than 49 million Americans had filed for unemployment. By July 1, approximately one out of every three American workers had lost a job.
The devastation was both unpredictable and unprecedented. Governments at every level scrambled to find solutions for families without paychecks. The CARES Act, the Payroll Protection Program and other sweeping measures were enacted to help businesses stay afloat and keep food on the table of unemployed Americans.
2020 became one giant meme, and it wasn’t a pretty one. So many jokes were shared about 2020 that black humor became part of our daily vocabulary. But something else emerged during this trying year: a resilience we didn’t know we had.
From state and local governments to community colleges, universities and workforce boards, Americans began rolling up their sleeves and worked to deliver creative solutions to complex problems. Businesses often led the way, launching private-public partnerships to form new supply chains to produce and distribute direly needed PPE to local hospitals and clinics.
Automobile manufacturers became ventilator factories. Window plants turned into face shield producers. Garment makers churned out face masks. Houses of worship became assembly lines for PPE. Not since World War II had so many done so much for so many in a united cause.
But the work is not over. COVID-19 is still with us. People are still getting sick and dying. Businesses are still failing; and governments are still struggling to figure out the best way to respond to a virus that spreads faster than we can contain it.
Against this backdrop, we turned to several leaders in economic development and asked them to share their views on the top issues facing the workforce and workforce development. What they had to say was telling, but even more impactful was the way they said it.
A heightened sense of urgency was evident in their voice. So was an overwhelming emotion of empathy for failing businesses and laid-off workers. These conversations were unlike any I’ve had in 20 years of reporting at Site Selection magazine and Conway Data.
For that reason, I’m letting them speak for themselves, with their words edited only for style, clarity and brevity. In some cases, their words are so powerful, you’ll want to read them twice.
Stephen Moret, President & CEO, Virginia Economic Development Partnership:
We have many challenges facing the country in general, but these are the biggest issues facing the workforce:
Barb LaMue, President & CEO, New North Inc., Green Bay, Wisconsin:
(New North Inc. launched a partnership in October with Microsoft, American Family Insurance and gener8tor to help 25 million people worldwide who had lost their job due to COVID-19 by teaching them new digital skills pertaining to jobs available in their community.)
Reskilling: We witnessed the outpouring of applications being submitted into the first round and know there is tremendous demand for quick, focused, skills-based training. It is our intention to repeat this process to increase the efforts provided to those who were most dramatically affected with job loss during the pandemic.
We also were very honored that LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky wrote about how learners around the world are using this time to get new skills through the gener8tor upskilling model. The New North region was the first in the country to design and execute this training method.
Barry Broome, President & CEO of Greater Sacramento Economic Council:
Affordable housing: An estimated 124,000 people have left San Francisco since the start of the pandemic. As a result, Greater Sacramento is now the No. 1 market for people looking for homes. Approximately 50,000 people per year are leaving the Bay Area and moving to our region. These are people under age 35 with a dual degree. Affordable housing has become a huge issue on the West Coast. Homes cost a million dollars in Seattle. Portland has been overrun. But if you look at the cost of doing business, Sacramento is like Austin.
Diversity inclusion: We are also launching a talent campaign of diversity inclusion to teach people new digital skills. In our first class of 40 students, 39 completed the program and became tech grads. Our market will be the leader in digital skills training, and our graduates will be able to afford good homes here. We have the workforce inclusion model down. We just have to keep building houses because people keep moving here.
Megan Lucas, CEO & Chief Economic Development Officer, Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, Lynchburg, Virginia:
Skills gaps: The biggest issue we are facing is the need for a highly skilled workforce trained in the trades. We need highly skilled welders. And for our region, that is in the nuclear energy field. The skills gaps still exist. Our Workforce Board and other partners are working to be innovative by working with service sector workers who lost their jobs. They are looking to upskill them if they are looking to make a career change.
Worker incentives: Another challenge, quite frankly, is the competition between working and collecting $600 a week in unemployment benefits. I’ve talked to employers who have told me they’re having trouble getting people to come back to work.
AI, robots and digital skills: Some other issues facing the workforce going forward are artificial intelligence replacing human jobs; the rise of robotics; and a Generation Z entering the workforce with a much more technically minded skillset. We will see an increase in technology certificates and in young people pursuing tech careers as a result of this demographic shift in the workplace.
David White, Director of Workforce & Talent Solutions, One Columbus, Ohio:
E-commerce: The rise of e-commerce is a big one. A lot of retail organizations in Central Ohio switched to e-commerce during the pandemic, and logistics operations are doing very well now.
Smaller offices: Another big trend is that office space is going to be smaller. Downtown Columbus is starting to pick up, but it is still nowhere near normal levels of office occupancy. Companies are still being cautious. People will still be going to offices when the pandemic subsides, but employers will be more flexible about workers’ schedules.