How to “Pandemic Proof” the National Labor Force

Bowling Green, Ky (September 3, 2020) – Congress, through the HEALS Act, is debating how to provide additional relief for Americans hit hard by the coronavirus shutdowns. We’ve all watched as things have seemed to move forward only to stall again. Responding to the overwhelming need of the American worker and American business right now is a tall order.

The economy contracted at a record level in the second quarter of 2020, and while the most recent jobs report suggested the emergence of a positive trend in hiring, these results have failed to restore even half the jobs lost to the pandemic. Right now, more than 16 million people are unemployed, and businesses are still struggling.

Immediate relief is needed, but as a nation, we must think long-term and examine how our workforce is developed. We must look at ways to “pandemic proof” our labor force and our businesses. 

Some of those answers lie within the five questionsthe U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics added to its Current Population Survey (CPS)to help gauge the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. Of particular note is the first question: “At any time in the LAST 4 WEEKS, did you telework or work at home for pay because of the coronavirus pandemic?”

The Bureau found that in June, just under one-third (31 percent) of workers teleworked or worked from home. Women were more likely to telework than men (36 percent vs. 27 percent); 49 percent of Asians teleworked compared to 31 percent of whites, 26 percent of Blacks, and 21 percent of Hispanics; and among employed people ages 25 and over, 5 percent of those with less than a high school diploma teleworked, compared to 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That’s just a snapshot, but looking at the numbers you can see inequities among minority populations and those with less education.

According to the Bureau, 66 percent of workers in educational services, 62 percent in finance and insurance, and 60 percent in professional and technical services teleworked. By comparison, just 7 percent of those working in accommodation (hotels/motels) and food services and 6 percent in agriculture teleworked.

Remember, those numbers are for employed workers in June. Telework provided a way for many of them to keep their jobs and keep earning a paycheck, but what about the unemployed or those not working in industries that lend themselves to telework?

There are three things we must do to make the labor force “pandemic proof” — provide better access to technology, provide digital job training, and connect people to legitimate telework opportunities.

One question the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics did not ask was whether workers have access to high-speed internet (also called broadband). Right now, 18.3 million people lack broadband in the U.S. — 45 percent are low-income families and 22 percent are rural residents.

It is nearly impossible to telework without broadband. That’s why Connected Nation, the national nonprofit I lead, works tirelessly to find innovative solutions for expanding access, adoption, and use of broadband and its related technologies. For years, we’ve had to explain why having access to the internet is nota luxury but a necessity. That all changed this year.

Kids were told to learn remotely, businesses were shut down, and workers were sent home. Everyone can now easily understand how the lack of internet access can hurt individuals, families, and communities.

When it comes to the economy, expanding broadband access is integral to supporting American workers and making it possible for business owners to allow their employees to telework and continue to reach customers.

We must also provide digital job training. In 2013, Connected Nation established its Digital Works program to meet the need for digital literacy training in rural and urban communities. Since then, it has transformed into a workforce development program that is focused on telework training and job-placement assistance.

Let me be clear: This program addresses the need to provide employment opportunities in areas that have seen a significant loss of brick-and-mortar jobs or within whole communities of people who suffer chronic unemployment. It has provided a viable solution for those looking for work — even during the pandemic. It has helped people from all walks of life, including single parents, young adults, senior citizens needing additional income, individuals with physical challenges, and our nation’s military spouses and veterans.

This program, and others like it, can provide help and solutions for vulnerable populations, for communities in distress, and during unexpected crises such as the coronavirus. In fact, if done correctly, a good telework training program has unlimited potential.

For example,in July, Digital Works marked its 1,000th job placement. Since the first class was held on May 9, 2013, graduates have received 2,823 job offers — an average of just over one job offer a day from the beginning of the program.

Digital Works classes are typically four weeks long, but during the first weeks of the pandemic, the program quickly transitioned to all-virtual classes and shortened their duration to two weeks to get people employed faster. Upon completion of the program, graduates can work part- or full-time and often have the flexibility to decide when they work.

Lastly, it’s imperative that a telework program provides legitimate job opportunities whether entry level or higher. There are many scams seeking to exploit those in need, which is why Digital Works partners with 70+ companies nationwide to tailor the training employers need and to ensure the jobs are with reputable organizations.

For nearly two decades, Connected Nation has been sounding the alarm: We mustexpand access to the internet, we must make it affordable, and we mustprovide the necessary training and guidance so that families and individuals can adopt the technology — and improve their lives. Now is the time to take action to protect and support our American workers and businesses.

Tom Ferree, Chairman & CEO
Connected Nation

Tom Ferree, Chairman & CEO

Bio: Tom Ferree provides vision and leadership, guiding Connected Nation’s industry-leading efforts to bridge the Digital Divide and bringing economic vitality to communities through technology. During his tenure, CN’s portfolio has expanded and received acclaim as the leader in broadband mapping, planning, and program implementation.

Ferree also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) re-chartered Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The committee’s mission is to make recommendations on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet (broadband) access.

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