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


November 10, 2021


Over the last year and a half, we’ve seen a transformational shift in how we view our education and workforce systems. The pandemic has changed the nature of work, how we view skills, and put a spotlight on a dire workforce shortage and the need to re-think how we recruit and hire. There are currently more than 10 million open jobs, yet only 7.4 million unemployed people.

This worker shortage has created an unprecedented workforce crisis that impacts businesses of all sizes, across many industries. Addressing this crisis requires public and private employers to focus on innovative ways to find, support, and retain employees in communities across the country.

On October 26, the U.S. Chamber Foundation hosted Talent Forward, bringing together leaders from business, education, and government to showcase employer leadership in getting people back to work. The event highlighted those employers building new pathways for discovering and upskilling workers, and driving innovative, people-focused solutions that fuel America’s economic recovery.

The recurring themes throughout the event made it clear that solving the workforce shortage includes greater access to quality childcare, better connections of education to employment, more pathways to employment for underserved workers, and more learners and workers with the necessary skills for in-demand jobs.

To address the people-jobs gap, there must be a commitment to solutions for working parents—particularly women. “Childcare is the sticky glue that holds all of our communities together,” said TOOTRiS CEO Allessandra Lezama, discussing the importance of childcare to our workforce and recovery. Access to quality, affordable childcare was an issue before the pandemic, however, it’s evident now that it’s directly linked to a thriving economy.

Chris Sharkey, president of community engagement at Corning Incorporated, noted potential employees are making employment decisions based on factors like access to childcare, more than the job itself. This fact alone has forced many working parents to leave the workforce or has delayed their returning. Getting Americans back to work requires an acknowledgement by employers of what employees need to be successful.

Understanding employee needs and increasing workplace flexibility will be crucial to bringing more workers back and retaining talent. “I think our leadership team needs to be open to the idea that right now it is a seller’s market for talent, so if we want to retain our very best, we’ll be wise to listen to what they’re asking for,” said Siemens Corporation President and CEO, Barbara Humpton.

Investing in people and ensuring they have the training and education they need has never been more critical to filling the record number of open jobs. U.S. local and state governments invest nearly $1 trillion in basic and higher education annually, and the private sector invests anywhere between $90 and $590 billion annually in on-the-job training. “Coming out of the pandemic, there’s a unique opportunity to upskill workers right now,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh. “With employers struggling to fill positions, investing in talent—especially talent that has historically faced barriers to entering the workforce—is a solution for businesses that need skilled workers.”

Secretary Walsh’s assertion that employers should be investing in talent that has been historically underserved is an important one. Creating opportunities for these groups—specifically Black Americans—to build skills and fill jobs is a key component to addressing the worker shortage. Black Americans are out of work at almost twice the rate of their white counterparts, making the pandemic’s impact even more devastating. This topic was underscored during a panel discussion on how we can better address the lack of Black talent in the workforce. OneTen CEO Maurice Jones argued that creating a pathway to advancement should be a priority for employers and talent developers. “The focus really needs to be on the trajectory of the talent,” said Jones. “Hiring, upskilling, and advancing.”

Bridging education to employment is another instrumental factor in getting people back on the job. Creating more opportunities through work-based learning is a key part of many employers’ strategies to hire and retain workers. Training benefits like apprenticeships allow employers to bring people into a given industry, while removing barriers like college degree requirements, and relying more on relevant skills. Speaking directly to employer solutions like this, Zurich North America CEO Kristof Terryn said, “you create a real loyalty when you invest in these people, you give them the skillsets they need, and retention is great.”

Training workers for the jobs employers need now is important, but so too is training workers for the jobs of the future. Digital skills are in demand. Public and private employers have an opportunity to build partnerships that train workers with these skills to fill open positions and grow the economy. “As tech becomes so core to business, every business becomes tech,” said Infosys President Ravi Kumar S., during a discussion on digital skills and the future workforce. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb added that the responsibility lands on both the public and private sectors to arm individuals with the proper skills that link opportunity and success.

The workforce challenges we currently face are the biggest challenges of our time, which is why the U.S. Chamber and U.S. Chamber Foundation launched the America Works initiative to help companies and our country address the workforce shortage and lead the way on our country’s path to long-term economic success. The Chamber Foundation’s workforce programs and initiatives create opportunities for businesses to develop and discover the talent they need, and for workers to realize the American Dream. Talent Forward showed us that employers across the country are developing innovative solutions that get people back to work, and that the talent is there, you just have to find it and cultivate it. Because we know that if you lead the world in talent, you lead the world.

Watch the full Talent Forward event and sessions here.

About the authors

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl Oldham

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