One of America’s great economic strengths historically has been the relative ease with which workers have switched jobs and climbed the ladder of opportunity.
In more recent years, though, labor mobility has been on the decline as workers have encountered more friction — such as higher expenses incurred in changing jobs — that limit their ability to move on and up.
Concerningly, there are signs that the Covid-19 pandemic is reinforcing that trend. The crisis has turbo-charged the shift toward digitalization and automation in virtually every industry, threatening swaths of vulnerable lower-income workers who lack the support needed to up-skill or re-skill in line with the changing economy.
The Census Bureau reports that 55% of households earning less than $50,000 annually have experienced a loss of employment since last March, compared to 38% of families earning at least $100,000.
In addition to its direct effect on existing jobs, the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge that millions of workers face in finding pathways to the higher quality fields that are in demand.
Workers can’t be expected to do this on their own. Both policymakers and companies have work to do to find more systematic ways to reduce the friction that prevents people from moving up in their industry or from shifting to new work.
The skills gap is a problem for employers, too. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey found that 74% of hiring managers agreed there was a skills gap in the labor market, with 48% saying that candidates lacked the skills needed to fill open jobs.
To address this, companies need to focus on getting the most out of their talent pool (current employees) and talent pipeline (incoming employees).
Employers have a vested interest in moving their existing employees up the skills ladder. For one thing, it’s almost always cheaper to retrain or up-skill an existing employee than it is to bring in a new one. For another, companies that invest in their employees and treat them well tend to both attract stronger talent and gain a better reputation among consumers.
Providing better skills pathways doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money. It’s more important to be targeting that budget in smarter, more cost-effective ways.
To make the most of their talent pool, companies can start by recognizing workers’ existing skills and provide training that augments and adapts them for new roles.
The pandemic, combined with the rise of AI technology, is accelerating the decline of many front-facing roles in industries like retail and hospitality, for example. But these workers usually have skills that can be valuable in other roles and industries, such as strong communication, problem-solving abilities and good time-management.
The transition from the retail sector to insurance shouldn’t be a hard one, for example, but it requires support in targeted areas of a worker’s expertise and skill set.
To reduce friction in talent pipelines, employers need to be flexible in how they bring people on board and invest in their development. Companies should consider partnering with providers who can offer job-relevant training and, crucially, validate the skills that have been attained.
Employers often buy subscriptions to e-learning platforms and think they’ve done enough. But they often lack a mechanism to validate that the learning was relevant for the job and has been absorbed.
Partnerships with third-party trainers and educators can help provide that mechanism. Employers, in turn, can provide feedback to the training provider on how well the incoming employees are performing, establishing a positive loop.
Companies can also step up through initiatives like the OneTen group, a recently launched coalition of CEOs dedicated to training, up-skilling and hiring 10 million black Americans over the next 10 years.
Initiatives like this aren’t just philanthropy. In today’s world, companies need to be thinking as much about their societal impact and reputation as they do about their financial results.
In the age of social media, employers can quickly hurt their reputations by treating workers poorly, including by failing to invest in their training and skills development. Companies need to bear in mind that today’s employees are tomorrow’s customers.