Here is what’s needed to close America’s skills gap

If business, governments and universities work together, we can develop the workforce needed to drive economic growth.
By: | April 12, 2021 • 4 min read
(Image: Adobe)

With the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic now in the rearview mirror, there are still 10 million Americans out of work, which is 4.3 million more unemployed individuals than there were in February 2020, before COVID-19 was declared a national emergency. While the prospects for economic recovery are trending in the right direction, simply getting people back to work won’t position businesses to succeed in the next decade. There continues to exist a growing skills gap thanks to a global digital transformation that existed well before the pandemic, and which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Businesses are realizing the need to close the skills gap, but we can’t simply rely on private sector employers to solve this challenge. To truly address this deficiency in skills, every stakeholder must take responsibility—including businesses, federal and state governments, as well as academia and employees themselves—to ensure that the labor force as a whole is equipped to thrive in the coming fourth industrial revolution.

Author Scotty Parrish

First, we must acknowledge that the skills gap is a real and emerging problem for businesses, the workforce and the economy as a whole. According to Randstad Sourceright’s 2021 Talent Trends survey, 40% of respondents say their organization has been negatively impacted by talent scarcity and they are struggling to find qualified candidates, even as millions of Americans remain unemployed. An increasingly digital economy has resulted both in a need for more technical competencies in fields like AI, cloud computing and machine learning, as well as so-called “soft skills” that can’t be automated, like communication, creativity, leadership, adaptability and teamwork.

Reskilling and upskilling on a large scale is needed, and that requires buy-in from every link in the workforce chain. Human capital leaders surveyed in Talent Trends widely agreed that multiple parties must play a role in this process, with 92% saying that companies should be responsible for skilling their employees, 68% saying the government should play a role and 65% expressing that universities should take part.

Encouragingly, a number of companies have embraced skilling initiatives. For instance, Microsoft has launched a global program to help 25 million people obtain new skills that focuses on equipping people with obtainable certificates and tools, access to skills development content, and critical data around jobs and their required skillsets. Additionally, Amazon pledged to invest over $700 million in upskilling programs for 100,000 employees over the next six years. In fact, Randstad is partnering with Amazon in their Career Choice program, part of Randstad’s goal of upskilling 40,000 American workers by the end of 2021 and touching the lives of 500 million workers by 2030. A critical component to these programs is the democratization of skilling opportunities offered to a wide variety of employees, as opposed to just senior level and high-potential workers.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has recognized the role that government must play in reskilling efforts. In its pre-pandemic Upskilling with Talent Pipeline Management report, the Chamber wrote that “upskilling strategies are no longer the exception, but a necessity,” and reinforced that position this year in its 2021 State of American Business address, when CEO Thomas Donahue urged lawmakers to fund skilling programs given how so many high-paying sectors have more openings than skilled workers. Thankfully, a number of states have embraced the challenge. During the pandemic, states like Connecticut and New York offered free online training courses for residents who were out of work, while Tennessee launched the Reconnect to Workforce Partnership, which provides scholarships to unemployed Tennesseans so they can take tuition-free courses at community or technical colleges.

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Universities also have a role to play in ensuring that graduates enter the job market with the skills that are most in demand by today’s employers. For example, the City University of New York (CUNY) offers upskilling opportunities for its students, providing courses and tracks in business, IT and software development, healthcare administration, data analytics and professional skills.

Equally encouraging are the public/private partnerships that rely on training and reskilling as a core principal. Ten states and the District of Columbia have joined OnwardUS, a nonprofit that aims to connect workers displaced by COVID-19 with retraining and job opportunities, and SkillsUSA, a nonprofit that works with middle school through college students to ensure they have the career and technology competencies that align with the skills needed by some of America’s largest employers.

Ultimately, all of this requires buy-in from workers who have to want to improve and broaden their skillset. Thankfully, more than half of the employees in Randstad RiseSmart’s Skilling Today survey expressed a desire to learn new skills or upgrade existing ones, revealing that workers are becoming more forward-looking about what they will need to remain employable in an evolving job market.

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As businesses and the economy look to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis, every stakeholder, from private sector businesses to federal and state governments to high schools and colleges, must address the fact that the American workforce simply doesn’t have enough qualified candidates to fill the growing number of high-skilled jobs. Only through coordination and working together can America develop the world-class, highly skilled workforce needed to drive economic growth in the next decade and beyond.

Scotty Parrish is senior vice president, Client Services Total Talent Solutions, at Randstad Sourceright.