Cheryl Oldham Cheryl Oldham
Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Vice President, Education & Workforce Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


November 19, 2020


On October 30, the Center for Education and Workforce hosted our annual conference, Talent Forward centered around how COVID-19 has irrevocably changed our education and workforce systems.

This year’s virtual event put a spotlight on the transformational change that is occurring as a result of the business community’s leadership during these challenging times. Workforce challenges have been front and center for several years before the spread of COVID-19, but the pandemic created considerable disruption across the entire talent pipeline.

The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of childcare, as many parents across the country are unable to return to full-time work without reliable and affordable childcare. Before COVID-19, we saw the devastating impact a lack of childcare has on a state’s economy – with several states losing more than $1 billion annually in economic activity due to breakdowns in childcare. Now, employees face the question of returning to work and re-evaluating their childcare equations, as childcare providers face rising operating costs to reopen.

“In a free society, our public systems should serve people, and that means that you have to understand what it is they want out of education, and you have to create aligned systems to deliver that,” said Todd Rose, author, co-founder and president, Populace, during a conversation on the future of K-12 education.

The changes to our K-12 systems in the wake of COVID-19 are undeniable and underscored the need to rethink how our education system is structured and, as Rose put it, “the profound inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all K-12 system.” We need new, innovative ways to connect students to learning and now more than ever we need to measure the learning that is taking place. And we have seen great progress. As former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings pointed out, we have made more strides in online education in the last six months than we have in the last 20 years. But we need to be sure we’re not reverting to the old system once the pandemic is over.

The issue of measuring progress through annual assessments has long been a priority of the business community, along with our civil rights colleagues. It’s simple: assessments allow us to evaluate where students are in their learning, and if we don’t know where students are, we can’t accurately address next steps for those being left behind. To this point, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a great comparison. He said, “anytime you go to the doctor, the doctor asks how you’re doing … how are you feeling? The doctor is evaluating you, assessing you, to figure out what’s going on. I don’t know how we help kids catch up, I don’t know how we help them move forward, if we don’t know where they are.” We can’t address learning loss if we don’t assess and measure it.

If the pandemic has exposed the inequities in our education system, it has also increased the need for a workforce system that utilizes a skills-based approach to learning and hiring. Skills are the currency of the future. Moving to a place where all learning counts, not just degrees — is imperative.

This topic was brought to the forefront during a panel discussion on how to connect employers needs with in-demand skills. “We're moving to a system where all learning truly counts, meaning that all along the workers journey, the skills they have will truly mean something,” said Sean Murphy, senior manager, opportunity, The business community is striving to make this a reality by creating a global infrastructure to ensure we can connect learners and workers to jobs and educational opportunities.

We learned IBM is focused on how the use of blockchain can play a role in keeping skills with learners through education and employment changes. We also now understand there is a need for digital skills to grow as technology becomes more and more ingrained into every job, as the pandemic has forced a transition to remote work for many workers. We’ve seen companies like Microsoft break down barriers through its workforce skilling initiatives, so everyone can gain the digital skills needed to succeed in today’s economy.

One catalyst for improving our workforce is incorporating employer-sponsored education benefits for employees. During a session that discussed how for many employers, not providing these types of benefits, is a miss opportunity to grow and retain talent. “We've seen evidence that students who actually enrolled while employed are actually more productive than those that are not,” said Terry McDonough, president, alternative learning, Strategic Education, Inc. Investing in talent in this way could prove to be a win-win for the employer and the employee.

An integral component to all our efforts within both the education and workforce systems is ensuring our strategies include diversity, equity, and inclusion. During a fireside chat with St. Philip’s College President, Dr. Adena Williams Loston, she pointed out the significance of increasing equity and inclusion to more effectively close the existing opportunity gap in education and the workforce. Loston highlighted academic engagement at all levels, community engagement, and workforce preparation as core competencies that are key ingredients in expanding opportunity.

The U.S. Chamber and the Chamber Foundation will continue to focus on business-led solutions to the current education and workforce challenges we face. As Talent Forward made clear, though the pandemic has upended much of both the education and workforce sectors, we have the strategies necessary to lead the country through this recovery. What’s also clear is chambers and business leaders have a role to play in driving innovation and building critical partnerships that solve problems, create opportunity, and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Together, we will move talent forward.

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About the authors

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl A. Oldham is senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and vice president of education and workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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