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Public/Private Plans for ‘Upskilling’ the Workforce

February 12, 2021 by Kate Michael
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) speaking at The Open Markets Institute's conference in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 2018. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The work environment during COVID has demonstrated an increased need for technical expertise in the workforce. A report from the World Economic Forum offers that by 2022 — just next year — half of employees will require significant re-skilling in order to perform their job functions and keep up with disruptions due to automation and a changing economy.

The pandemic has accelerated advancements in the workplace projected to have been a decade away, increasing the need for technical and tech-savvy workers in the job market. But for many, those skills are either non-existent or just out of reach.

Leaders from both the government and the tech sector recognize the need for training and upskilling to ensure that unemployed and underemployed workers can access future available jobs. Already, demand for those jobs exceeds supply, and they say that the pipeline for qualified workers cannot grow without significant investment and a reframing of our national mindset. 

Washingtonian Magazine in partnership with Amazon Web Services convened a panel including Sen. Mark Warner, tech services, and training organizations to discuss the future of work and opportunities for upskilling the national workforce. 

Upskilling is the process of teaching employees new skills as technology affords new opportunities and new jobs which require specialized skill sets. 

“It is only recently that this has captured people’s attention,” said Warner, who has introduced several bills aimed at supporting Americans who can increasingly expect to work in a variety of jobs over a lifetime. He said he’s “trying to reimagine capitalism with a focus on human capital.”

“The basic social contract that originated in the ’30s and ’40s is kind of up for grabs,” Warner said. “Changes in the nature of work mean that Americans are more likely to change jobs and be engaged in non-traditional forms of work than they were a generation ago – but our federal policies haven’t kept up with those economic shifts.”

“If we want to grow our economy and expand opportunity, Congress has to take steps to increase access to skills training and support workers with access to flexible, portable benefits that carry from job to job,” he suggested. 

“We’re probably not going back to a world where people work for the same firm for 35 years. We need to meet workers where they are with public/private initiatives… If not, these folks will be left without any kind of meaningful employment opportunities.”

Warner is also pushing to incentivize corporations to invest in their workers. A combination of factors, including the outsourcing of ancillary work functions, new categories of work (e.g. contract and freelance), and people changing jobs frequently has precluded firms from investing in skills training and development. He believes some practical legislation could remedy this training deficiency. 

In the last Congress, Warner introduced his Investing in American Workers Act, which would encourage employers to invest more in quality skills training for their workers by creating a tax credit – similar to an R&D tax credit – that would encourage businesses to spend money training lower- and moderate-income workers. Similarly, his Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act would make lifelong learning more accessible for low- and moderate-income workers by establishing a tax-preferred savings account with a government match to help support workers seeking to retrain or upskill over the course of their careers.

“The tax system benefits corporations from their capital investment, not human investment,” he added. “You can’t blame the businesses as all of the incentives are against them.”

Yet some businesses are investing in their workers anyway. Warner cited training programs at companies like Starbucks, with its Barista Basics Training Program, and free training and certifications at Amazon as examples of “large corporations doing the responsible right thing.” 

“If we want to make sure [workers are trained for the jobs we need them to be]… we must develop cloud degrees, specializations, and certificates… to train and certify citizens,” said Kim Majurus, leader in Education, State and Local Government at Amazon Web Services. 

Majurus identified cloud computing as just one workforce skill dramatically increasing in demand. “It’s been one of the top skills over the last six years,” she admitted. 

Amazon has been developing courses and offering free learning resources to develop a pathway so that the supply pipeline of technical workers for cloud computing and other work can meet current and future demand. 

“There is a tremendous demand for skill sets, but the art is going to be in aligning demand with supply,” said Sonu Singh, founder and chief executive officer of the 1901 Group, a Leidos Company. 1901 Group is an IT service management company that has had particular success in identifying untapped talent in rural areas. 

“We can get people trained, but how do we get people into jobs?” he asked, adding that the disconnect falls between finding people who can actively do the work and the labor category they fall within. “Companies have to make a commitment to hiring folks that are entry-level from a skill perspective.”

Panelists also agreed that continued training through public/private partnerships, with a focus on innovation, corporate commitment, and new attitudes, could help advance opportunities for all.

“COVID-19 has changed our economy many years before that otherwise would have happened,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, chief executive officer of Byte Back, a non-profit that delivers inclusive tech training to close the digital divide and provides a pathway to acquire marketable skills and living-wage careers.

“Technical skills are needed to stay employed and [compete] in this new environment. I see an increased number of people coming to us saying, ‘I need to work and work now is done through technology.’ So it’s important to bring these skills to diverse communities, not only to survive but thrive.”

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