There is a lot to celebrate in our economy right now. Job growth has been strong for several years, and the unemployment rate is at its lowest in half a century — a trend that spans almost all demographics. Yet, the combination of strong demand for labor and a rising bar for skills has resulted in 7 million open jobs, in part because businesses cannot find candidates with the required skills to fill those positions. That’s 7 million unfilled opportunities, while at the same time, we have millions who are unemployed, underemployed or have stopped looking for work altogether. In some ways, this robust job market has given us clearer visibility into the gap between great opportunity and great need.
Economists predict that the need for specialized skills will continue to increase as the economy is driven by more opportunities to leverage automation and artificial intelligence. Such factors will require a workforce with higher level technical and cognitive skills. It will be critical for American businesses to continue innovating in order to remain competitive in the global market. That will be a great benefit to our society if it creates employment for people.
We need to ensure that the conditions for a dynamic economy are matched with dynamic opportunities for Americans. Otherwise, we will be on a path to see the current opportunity gap widen. The implications could go well beyond the impact to individuals and families directly affected. A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations about workplace skills and U.S. leadership in the 21st century stated that, “If the United States cannot find ways for its companies to succeed and for its workforce to share more fully in that success, the political pressures for retrenchment…will grow. The result will be an economically weaker, less confident, more divided, and more vulnerable United States.”
Many of the predictions for the displacement of workers in current jobs are staggering, affecting people who are currently earning a paycheck and supporting themselves and their families. People in the workforce today are already showing concern. According to one recent report, 51% of American workers are concerned about the number of jobs available in their states, and 43% agree there are few jobs available in their states that fit their skillsets.
For America to maintain its place in the global economy, we must create real pathways for employees to adapt and thrive. That will require all of us working collaboratively. Employers must commit to being part of the solution by creating training programs that serve and strengthen employees.
Employers must be at the center of the solution, providing upskilling to their employees and collaborating with educators and other service providers to ensure that we are tooling our current and future workforce. The good news is that many employers are stepping forward to capture this opportunity. In August, the Business Roundtable published a Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which was signed by 181 CEOs of America’s largest companies, committing to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. Their commitment to employees includes, “supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.”
One company leading the way is Walmart, which has provided more than one million employees with expansive training for current jobs through Walmart Academy. In addition, its dollar-a-day college program is giving opportunities for team members to expand their competencies beyond their current jobs. Other companies like McDonald’s, Aramark and Disney have also launched employee development initiatives.
Politicians and policymakers must be accountable for advancing evidence-based solutions that work. We also know that hundreds of billions of dollars are currently being invested to support training and education without sufficient results. Now is the time to take a step back and ask how funding can be realigned to ensure that our families and our neighbors can acquire the skills they need to fuel our economic future and put themselves on a path to flourish in a rapidly changing economy.
Finally, all of us service providers who support people in our communities must work together to ensure that the support we provide leads to real opportunity, both in terms of skills and in terms of providing the other supports people need to reach their potential, so we can put them on a track to make it a reality.
Steven C. Preston appeared on WorldatWork's "Work in Progress" podcast on Jan. 22. Preston talked with the hosts about helping people going through tough life transitions "rebuild" themselves and find meaningful work.
About the Author
Steven C. Preston is the president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International.