Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: The smart way to get US employees back to work

Zoe Baird and David Marsh
Key Points
  • The coronavirus outbreak is creating widespread suffering and uncertainty as the nation grapples with grave and interconnected challenges to our health and economy. We are a long way from returning to full employment.
  • Missing in the planning to return to work is a response to a very fundamental challenge: how do we ensure that the return to economic activity better positions American workers for success.
  • The businesses that come back will not look like the businesses before, and that means disruption to the jobs that employers will fill. 
Lay Guzman stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wears a mask and gloves as she works as a cashier at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak is creating widespread suffering and uncertainty as the nation grapples with grave and interconnected challenges to our health and economy. We are a long way from returning to full employment.

Missing in the planning to return to work is a response to a very fundamental challenge: how do we ensure that the return to economic activity better positions American workers for success – particularly those most profoundly hurt by this pandemic.

One key way to achieve this is to provide effective training to move to better jobs.  The businesses that come back will not look like the businesses before, and that means disruption to the jobs that employers will fill. 

There will not be a perfect match between those who can safely return to work and the workers who are needed for the businesses ready to reopen. America needs a plan to skill up the workers it will take to reopen.

President Donald Trump has announced a task force to get America back to work; former Vice President and apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden has written an op-ed framing his views; and governors have begun to form alliances to plan reopening their economies.

Ideas have included removing restrictions based on the local severity of the disease, allowing people to come back to work in waves based on their risk profile, or first reopening certain sectors that can maintain social distancing.

While we don't know when health realities will make it viable to resume economic activity, it is critical for our nation's leaders to start planning immediately to increase the chances of success for workers as well as businesses.

Of course, the goal has to be to get as many workers as possible back into their prior jobs, and to provide income support for those who don't have that opportunity.  But the disruption to the workforce is profound and additional action is essential.

While we don't know when health realities will make it viable to resume economic activity, it is critical for our nation's leaders to start planning immediately to increase the chances of success for workers as well as businesses.

The Wall Street Journal reported that "we have already seen the fastest reallocation of labor since WWII." Government leadership is needed to identify which sectors or geographies are most necessary to bring back first, the characteristics of their work force and the skills needed for the most critical jobs, and how we can get available workers the training they need to perform that work. 

Many businesses will not reopen and others will shrink dramatically, leaving many workers disconnected from good jobs. Other workers may choose not to pursue their previous role. For those who cannot regain their previous role or want to pursue a better opportunity, federal policy should empower them with information and training to pursue the good jobs that become available as some sectors surge and others collapse. 

This is a short-term imperative and a long-term objective. It would be tragic if we failed to use this moment to get people training so they can pursue higher paying jobs in the labor market ahead.  This moment will either widen the divide in opportunity or make the first break at narrowing it.

Where to start?

First, within the context of public health realities, what jobs will come back first, and what skills are required to actually perform those jobs successfully?  In the short-term those may be critical jobs in healthcare and other sectors that are needed for the public health response or community safety.

In the next wave, some jobs will come back with some level of social distancing still in place. In the longer term, entirely new trends will change the direction of industries and sectors, increasing the demand for some skill sets while decreasing others. 

Second, who can fill these jobs, and what skills do they have? Again, the answer has to take into account who can first return to work without health risks. The federal and state governments can use their job boards in partnership with on-line job search sites to make transparent to workers the skills in demand so people can apply for jobs perhaps in sectors in which they have not previously worked.

Third, how can we address the mismatch by powering rapid learning for available workers tied to available jobs?  Many employers use online learning delivery partners today and we need to scale the availability of that training and provide the funds workers need to pursue it.  Australia is ahead of us in pursuing this in response to Covid-19.   

Money for training

We should consider a major federal program to increase funding for unemployed or furloughed workers to help them access online education and training. Employers urging reopening of their workplace should partner in providing training. 

Companies like Verizon have already found that transitioning people has required rapid online retraining. We can scale current programs with a track record of helping participants get good jobs with higher wages or by encouraging the creation of new programs where there is unmet need.

Effective digital learning should be made available to people who want to pursue both non-degree and degree programs. Colleges are ramping up on-line courses.  Organizations like Per Scholas and Year Up have been helping people get into in demand IT support roles for over a decade. Companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn are also offering training programs to people outside of their company to help them prepare for technology jobs.

Our nation's future health and prosperity will be shaped by the decisions our leaders make today. Understanding and addressing the critical need our workforce has to train for the most valuable work in the economy ahead is an essential component of any plan to reopen businesses.  Workers must be better prepared to fill higher value jobs, strengthening both their earning capacity and the viability of economic success.

 Zoe Baird is the CEO and president of the Markle Foundation. David Marsh is the senior manager for state and federal policy at the Markle Foundation.