It was a meeting on workforce issues, but the use of data threaded through many of the discussions at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s second annual National Workforce Conference on Tuesday.
From mining data to predict future workforce needs, to a new data system that will bring together stakeholders to help fill available jobs, data was the buzzword at the conference in Washington, D.C., that included a wide range of employers, from McDonald’s and Delta, to Amazon and Bank of America.
Chamber President Thomas Donohue set the tone for the conference by outing the two challenges that U.S. employers face — a skills gap and a people gap.
The skills gap is something stakeholders are familiar with and have been working to address. But the people gap often flies under the radar.
“There simply aren’t enough people ready, willing and able” to work, Donohue said.
Speaking the same language
Much of the challenge around the skills gap centers around exactly what competencies and skills are needed for available and emerging jobs. Employers, educators and job seekers speak different languages when it comes to skills. They often talk about the same skills, but usually use different terms.
“The crux of the issue is translation,” said Matt Gee, president of BrightHive, who was part of a panel discussion on using technology for the talent marketplace.
The chamber said it is developing what it is calling the Jobs Data Exchange that is designed to speak a more common language that all stakeholders can understand. The system will provide “real-time” labor market data that K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, employers, workers, states, localities and others can use to determine available jobs, required skills and which institutions provide the credentials that certify those skills. It will be released in 2019, according to chamber officials.
The people problem
For employers to remain globally competitive, they must look more toward nontraditional pipelines, including older workers, incumbent workers, veterans and their spouses, and inmates who will soon be released from prison, Donohue said. It also includes immigrants, and Donohue made it clear that the chamber stands behind DACA, noting the organization was ready for a “big-time brawl” if lawmakers try to eliminate DACA.
“It would be unconscionable to force them out of their homes, schools and jobs,” he said of the 1.3 million “Dreamers” in the U.S.
A Trump administration official later outlined the economic and business challenges for U.S. companies, which largely mirrored what Donohue presented, including the impact that the opioid epidemic is having on the workforce and economy. (Opioid addiction is reportedly responsible for a 20 percent decline in the U.S. workforce.)
Christopher Liddell, assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, said government efforts such as tax reform and cuts in regulations have spurred economic growth, which has driven down unemployment. But there is concern about the lack of people to fill available jobs, which is a gap that is expected to increase as baby boomers retire. (About 10,000 baby boomers leave the workforce daily and will continue at that rate until 2029, according to the chamber.)
“Clearly, it will be one of the biggest issues we’ll face in the next few years,” Liddell said.
Shout out for apprenticeships
Tackling the workforce challenge requires a public-private partnership, Liddell continued. He cited the president’s focus on apprenticeships as a prime example, noting that this summer many major companies signed the Pledge to America’s Workers, a voluntary initiative where about 140 participating employers promise to create some 5 million jobs through apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs.
Liddell added that the White House will soon announce more participants to the initiative, as well as a program to bring on more small businesses.
Besides offering students and potential employees work experience, companies should consider offering support services, said Allen Shaheen, executive vice president of Cognizant’s North American regional delivery centers. The company’s foundation enlisted employee volunteers to offer support and guidance to participants in their training programs. This offered a “safe environment” to potential new employees to ask work-related questions that they may feel uncomfortable asking, such as questions about appropriate work attire.
Shaheen, whose company partnered with Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona on targeted training programs, said that he hopes “alumni” of the program will themselves volunteer and develop a network to serve new employees who may come from nontraditional and disadvantaged backgrounds.