Workers Are at the Heart of Our Economic Recovery

We need a bold new way of thinking to help them succeed.

If you’ve tried to schedule a meeting with more than a few people recently, it probably felt like a game of calendar Tetris that ended in frustration. Summers are always like that, but in 2021, after the year we’ve had, it seems everyone is packing their bags, crawling out of their pandemic dens, and hitting the road for a much-needed break. And as we do so, we are seeing with our own eyes the impact of the labor shortages that are all over the news. Service is less reliable, and everything takes longer. That’s because there are fewer workers to check us in, take our orders, or even answer the phone.

We’ve experienced labor shortages before. In fact, we’ve seen them after every recession or economic downturn. And each time, we diagnose people as the problem: “They don’t want ‘those jobs.’” “They don’t have the right skills.” “They don’t have enough experience.” In response, the workforce and education systems crank into overdrive to train people for in-demand positions, with little to no consideration of the quality of those jobs, until we reach “full employment,” and then we ride that out until the cycle repeats itself with the next downturn.

It’s time for a new diagnosis if we want a cure.

What’s ailing U.S. workers

Some things are different this time around. Wages are going up (for the first time ever, average pay for grocery and restaurant workers is more than $15 an hour), and businesses and workforce organizations have invested in making jobs better. And yet people are not working, and employers still have unfilled positions.

So what’s going on?

Let’s consider that the current labor shortage is about more than the skills gap or low-quality jobs. Maybe the real issue hindering our economic recovery is that our workforce investments haven’t been comprehensive. In other words, we haven’t addressed all the other “stuff” that workers have to contend with in order to get and succeed in a job. For example:

  • unaffordable and/or unsafe housing that is far from centers of employment
  • unaffordable and/or inaccessible child and elder care
  • inefficient transportation systems that don’t connect home to child care to work and back
  • employer practices that prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting most jobs, except the lowest wage, lowest quality jobs
  • policies that punish the poor with fines and fees that can lead to revoked driver’s licenses and other harsh penalties that affect a person’s ability to work
  • mental health issues, including the effects of trauma and toxic stress brought on by systemic racism, generational poverty, and a pandemic

Any one of these things makes life and work harder. Too many people in this country — most of them people of color — deal with multiple challenges on this list, day in and day out. It’s no wonder that businesses are struggling to recruit. It’s no wonder that too many workers are at the breaking point.

These are not new issues. COVID made them worse, sure, but they’re not new.

And for a long time, the workforce development field said, “Those are big, complicated issues that someone else is working on. We need to stay in our lane and focus on skills and training.”

Maybe it’s time to stop saying that. Because the thing is, succeeding in the labor market takes a lot more than the right combination of skills, training, and experience.

“You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser.” — Des’ree

Time to be bold

Workforce development is sometimes considered an “afterthought,” but that workforce is the hub of our economy. Yes, capital, innovation, and technology are all important, but without people to make the products or build the buildings or write the code or stock the shelves or care for the patients, the economy will sputter.

Workforce leaders have become really good collaborators to help close the skills gap. They work across a broad range of systems and stakeholders – employers, community colleges, public workforce boards, training providers, etc. Maybe it’s time to take those collaboration skills, and with a systems thinking mindset, apply them to the broader issues holding back workers and our economy — housing, child care, transportation, criminal justice, mental health, and more.

Sustainable economic recovery may require moving out of our lane (“you gotta be bad”) to tackle these complex, interconnected issues that workers deal with every day (“you gotta be bold”). It will certainly require unpacking and being honest about how systemic racism has created and perpetuated the systems that created these barriers.

If this sounds like a lot of hard work, that’s because it is. But we can look to healthcare for some lessons and perspective (“you gotta be wiser”).

Health researchers have come to understand that about half of what contributes to a person’s health is attributable to medical care and lifestyle choices. The other half is influenced by education, employment status, housing, and physical environment, family support, and more. In other words, a healthy diet, regular doctor visits, and exercise will only go so far in making a person healthy if they live in substandard housing in an unsafe community with little access to support.

The same principle applies to employment. The right skills, a marketable certification, and a decent job only get workers so far if their housing is unsafe, they can’t find affordable child care, and it takes two hours and three bus transfers to get to their job.

In health, these factors are referred to as “social determinants of health,” or sometimes “social risk factors.” In workforce, we have started to see references to the “social determinants of work” (also this new post), including by us.

Important concepts, wonky terminology

If this is the work ahead for workforce development, we’ll need to need to be smart about our message, making it clear and straightforward to bring others along. Workforce practitioners should collaborate with communications partners (like the authors of this blog) to make sure they get it right and don’t get bogged down by jargony, academic concepts.

Workforce is the hub of the economy, and workforce problems are holding back our economic recovery. We need to get comfortable outside of our lane. We won’t train or credential our way out of the current crisis. We need to embrace challenging, cross-system work and embrace cross-sector collaboration if we’re going to fix what’s ailing U.S. workers and advance a truly equitable, sustainable, and inclusive economic recovery. We gotta be bold.

So, even if the service is a little slow when you order that umbrella drink by the pool, rest up and enjoy your well-deserved break. There’s work to do.

Janice Urbanik and Lisa Chensvold

-- Senior Director for Innovation and Strategy and Marketing and Communications Director, National Fund for Workforce Solutions