The biggest challenge facing our labor force—workers and employers—in 2022
Let’s be honest. 2021 cannot end soon enough for many Americans. For almost two years, we have lived through one of the most traumatic periods since the formation of our republic. For many across our nation, the lingering effects of the most significant and life-changing period of social isolation, job loss, and general economic uncertainty have had a profound impact on the physical and mental well-being of our nation’s workforce. The challenge for 2022 will reside less in how we overcome our recent past and more in how we embrace a very different future.
Women, more than any other group, bore the brunt of the pandemic: the running total for women exiting the U.S workforce since the start of the pandemic has now reached over 2.4 million people. Women assumed the role of caregivers for their aging and vulnerable parents. They took on more parenting duties for their home-bound children as ill-prepared schoolteachers learned to teach using a tool whose name had not yet made its way into our everyday vocabulary: ZOOM. These roles combined with full-time employment, if they were so fortunate, increased the tremendous pressure felt by women across this country. This pandemic lockdown was a period so prolonged that it would test the very strongest of minds.
With urgent and competing priorities an everyday reality for many, we have experienced one of the largest workforce exits of women on record. How women are absorbed back into the U.S workforce will be one of the central issues of our time – and economic realities may dictate the pace.
The most recent U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report offers a revealing portrait of what to anticipate in 2022. According to the December 6TH BLS report, there are 10.6 million available jobs in this country, while 4.6 million Americans have quit their jobs during the reporting period. The reason for the gap, while layered in complexity, is also rather simple to untangle as two main causes emerge. First, we currently have more jobs than job seekers because large numbers of Americans lack the skills required for the jobs available. Second, COVID has forced a profound reassessment among the American workforce on what they will or will not tolerate from their employers in terms of benefits and flexibility. In 2022, we will begin to see how these two critical issues will resolve, with far-reaching consequences for generations to come.
Many within the workforce development community have long predicted the future of work will gradually unfold over the next decade. Fueled by rapid technological advancement, we have long witnessed the gradual attrition of traditional jobs due to automation. However, because of the pandemic, the long journey of incremental change within the workforce has become a sprint. Almost overnight, we have experienced the emergence of what the workforce of the future will look like. For workers of color, lack of preparedness for tomorrow’s jobs will further widen the opportunity gap that exists between them and their white counterparts. More worryingly, if left unchecked, this gap may fuel future social unrest and civil discord. A determined effort must be made now to address these issues.
For workers of color, lack of preparedness for tomorrow’s jobs will further widen the opportunity gap.
Clarity on occupational trends and the impact of technology on an ever-changing workforce can be found on a recent BLS Occupation Employment and Wage data report for the Denver-Aurora metropolitan region. The report lists 22 occupational categories across this region. For the top 12 employment categories – where most job growth is predicted – technological proficiency ranks very high. Occupations residing at or near the top of the occupational chart all require moderate to advanced technological skills. These occupational groups include management, business, and financial operations, computer and mathematical, engineering, legal, and health care. More tellingly, African Americans and other people of color are vastly underrepresented within these professions.
In contrast, the bottom 10 occupational categories also offer a worrying illustration of the impact of technological skills training on the African American workforce. These occupations include office and administrative support, sales and related fields, production, transportation, maintenance and repair, and foodservice. In the post-pandemic epoch, these positions will be impacted by a combination of technological advancements and the changing nature of how we work. African Americans and other people of color are highly concentrated in these occupations. The story of Denver-Aurora is also the story of America. How we remedy, the situation in 2022 will again have far-reaching consequences for generations to come.
A team of scholars at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently provided an interesting perspective on the American workforce through the experiences of women and people of color. They assert that while credentials and certifications make women and candidates of color more competitive, “they are not enough to overcome systemic discrimination and occupational segregation in our labor market.”
The central issue of our time is how we finally ensure that our nation’s founding promise becomes an everyday reality for all Americans.
The Spotlight team further asserts that occupations dominated by women pay less than those dominated by men, even at similar skill levels. Moreover, at “every level of educational attainment, Black and Hispanic workers earn less than White workers.” Conventional wisdom would therefore assume that our nation’s workforce development programs would provide a remedy for job seekers. However, according to a Joint Center for Political and Economic studies report entitled Principles to Support Black Workers in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, federal workforce development programs have “reproduced rather than reduced persistent occupational segregation and poor job quality.” It goes without saying that if we are to tackle head-on matters of equity, fairness, and inclusion in our workforce, the time has arrived. The central issue of our time – for 2022 and beyond – is how we finally ensure that our nation’s founding promise becomes an everyday reality for all Americans.
The United States is fast becoming an aging nation. By 2024, older workers will become the largest single segment of the nation’s workforce. During the COVID pandemic, older Americans were disproportionately impacted by mass layoffs and have been the slowest to return to the workforce. Preparing our older workers for the changing nature of work must become a national economic priority. Occupations that will drive our long-term growth will require re-training and upskilling.
Traditional workforce development programs have been criticized for not being age-friendly. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Senior Community Service and Employment Program (SCSEP) is funded at a level that – some would argue – represents little more than a rounding error when measured against the total workforce training budget of the agency. Workforce equity and inclusion must also encompass the needs – and value – of older workers. The economic argument for fully engaging our older workers is supported by a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, which found that the U.S. economy would grow 15% if we trained and employed older workers while ridding our society of age discrimination. We must make 2022 the starting point for an unprecedented effort to fully engage and support our older workers in the U.S. workforce.
What gives me hope?
I have confidence in the resilience of the American worker. Labor and innovation drove our great manufacturing age. Twenty-first-century innovation is driving every facet of change in our lives. We are a country of immigrants, workers, and innovators. With the benefit of time, this country has always made the necessary adjustments based on new realities. We will do it again.
I am also hopeful that the Build Back Better bill currently making its way through Congress, if passed, will release significant human capital investment into our economy. The success of this investment, and the ability of these funds to generate corresponding levels of investment from the business community, will be the defining legacy of the Biden Presidency. I am hopeful because there is too much at stake for us to fail.