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A Roadmap for Radical Change in the Workplace

Published October 8, 2020

Written by: Jamie Merisotis
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Jamie Merisotis

Jamie Merisotis is a globally recognized leader in philanthropy, education, and public policy. Since 2008, he has served as the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. He previously served as co-founder and president of the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy and as executive director of a bipartisan national commission on college affordability appointed by the U.S. president and congressional leaders. Merisotis is the author of “America Needs Talent,” which was named a Top 10 Business Book of 2016 by Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association.

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Since March, tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, bringing the United States’ unemployment rate to its highest point since the Great Depression. The near-term pain is obvious, but how will this seismic economic event influence the workforce a generation from now? 

Millions of people are now working remotely. Schools have shifted to online courses, leading to students learning in what was once considered a peripheral method of education. While workplaces, schools, and colleges will eventually reopen, the idea it is normal to “go” to work or school has likely changed forever. This move away from brick-and-mortar spaces has a bright side we should be ready to take advantage of, especially because online learning opens doors to many of today’s students, who are more likely to be minorities, working full time, and caring for family members.

Previously, I wrote about Marcia McCallum, a single mother of four who went back to school to earn two associate degrees at a community college nearly 30 years after finishing high school. Online learning allowed her to juggle school, work, and family. Now, McCallum doesn’t have to do double-shifts waiting tables on the weekends. Instead, she works full-time for a biotech company growing cell cultures that are harvested for therapeutic antibodies. This highlights how we can take advantage of the massive shift in the way we perceive of school and work to serve everyone, not just those who can afford, financially or in terms of time, to receive an education.

Which weaknesses in education systems and workforce training systems have the economic crisis highlighted and exacerbated?

During the pandemic, we’ve seen that people who can work remotely are less likely to lose their jobs. The ability to work remotely is closely associated with education levels.

Even before COVID-19 truly hit, unemployment for workers without a high school diploma had risen to 6.8% in March 2020. But among those with at least a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate had increased only 2.5%. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Fifty-four percent of people with master’s or doctoral degrees can work remotely; the share of people who can work at home drops to 39% for workers with bachelor’s degrees. For workers who don’t have at least a bachelor’s, the number bottoms out at 20%. The lesson we can draw is that higher levels of education—and the skills and attributes they help people develop, including the ability to communicate, motivate themselves, and work in teams—prepare workers to adapt to the changes in the workplace, now and in the future.

What should the U.S. government do right now to help people develop the capacity for human work? 

It has never been more important for the federal government and states to be aligned. States have an especially big hill to climb. More than 40 states and the District of Columbia require balanced budgets. To balance them, states have two major levers: massive layoffs of state employees or raising taxes. Programmatic cuts, by themselves, won’t be enough. More important, given the more than 40 million Americans who filed for unemployment because of shutdowns related to the pandemic, the political consequences will be enormous.

I don’t see any reasonable path forward without a massive infusion of federal dollars to states, but it cannot be used simply to prop up the “existing system.” That system has failed too many Americans for too long. That was the mistake of the last recession: most of the dollars the feds gave states were used to prop up underperforming systems.

This time, we should invest massively in generating real results. This includes hefty investments in community colleges that award associate degrees and short-term credentials for workers in retail, hospitality, and other heavily affected industries. Many of those jobs are not likely to return.

Any additional federal stimulus efforts also should focus on the human work skills that will be necessary for success in the new economy. These investments must focus on the economic needs of workers and the growing racial disparities highlighted by the spread of the COVID-19. The policy options that are weighed cannot be a “return to normal” because we know “normal” for most of the world is not something people want. They want and deserve much better.

In “Human Work,” you suggest the need for a large-scale rethinking of higher learning and workforce training programs. Can this crisis force us to be bolder? Are there changes you support that are likely to be adopted after this crisis?

I fear many still believe the end of the crisis will bring a return to “normal.” But for our systems of learning and preparing people for work, returning to the old normal would be disastrous. People will need new skills, new ways of engaging with their communities, and new ways of relating to one another. The crisis clarifies that we need to make opportunities for work-relevant learning available to every American, regardless of wealth, race, age, or geographic location.

Some colleges are already reinventing themselves to meet the needs of a new generation of students. In the book, I wrote about Amarillo College in the Texas Panhandle. Ten years ago, it had a graduation rate of 9%.

Russell Lowery-Hart, now president of the college, discovered issues such as childcare and transportation were the biggest hurdles for students. He set up a series of “wraparound” support services to meet students’ needs in non-academic areas. Now, the completion rate is 52%. Lowery-Hart’s most poignant insight was that colleges have to address students’ life circumstances. It’s an especially important lesson as the country’s tumult upends students’ academic pursuits.

You write about “earning, learning, and serving” throughout the book and often offer an almost spiritual take on the dignity of work. Can you explain why continuous learning is so integral to developing meaningful human work?

We live in a complex world. It’s not just that employment requirements are constantly changing in ways that demand higher levels of thinking and skill. The knowledge, skills, and abilities people need to develop also are needed to address the issues we face as a society and the problems we see in our communities. The only way to meet this challenge is through continuous learning on a vast scale. Fortunately, we are hard-wired to learn, just as we are to work and serve.

I found an example of one such “learning organization” in what many might consider an unlikely place—state government. For the past decade, the state of Tennessee, the largest public employer in the state with 42,000 workers, has made a substantial commitment to offer learning and training opportunities to its employees. Instead of holding one-day job fairs, the state created 28 different state leadership academies, ranging from management training to programs that groom younger employees for future leadership opportunities.

Trish Holliday, leader of this Tennessee training initiative, says what’s most important is the state government has seen a cultural change so that training is not seen as “event-driven” but as something that happens continually and that you build on.

New technology and automation have been eliminating jobs for decades. The accelerating pace of technology adoption is likely to displace many workers or force them to work differently. What should retraining look like? Who’s responsible for making it happen?

Even the term “retraining” is obsolete. We have to keep learning throughout our lives. Required work skills constantly change, even for people who don’t switch jobs.

One problem is education and training continue to be viewed as fundamentally different and separate systems, and whatever people learn in one system is not recognized by the other. The answer is that education and workforce training must be redesigned as a broad, integrated system focused on meeting the needs of individuals.

There already are companies and education providers creating local initiatives to integrate work and learning. In the book, I wrote about an apprenticeship program near Charlotte, North Carolina. The program at Blum Inc., a manufacturer of high-tech latches and hinges for cabinetry, allows workers to also attend classes at the local community college. At the end of their apprenticeships, workers have jobs with the company, an associate degree from the college, and a journeyman certificate from the North Carolina Department of Commerce they can take with them if they switch jobs.

What are some examples of companies—or even countries—promoting people’s deeper potential? Is anyone taking the right approach to developing the capacities of human workers who increasingly must deal with automation and AI?

Absolutely. In Tennessee, the Lee Company, a family-owned air-conditioning, plumbing, and electrical business with more than $22 million in annual sales and 1,500 employees, makes a point of helping its workers thrive.

After the recession 10 years ago, the company created Lee Company University, a training program that offers employees a free, structured four-year program leading to an industry-recognized certification and journeyman license.

Another example, Cummins, Inc., a large publicly-traded company which makes diesel engines and power-generation equipment, is a $26 billion annual business with 60,000 employees across the globe. The Columbus, Indiana-based company employs collaborative robots, or “cobots,” to work alongside human employees freeing them from repetitive or physically taxing tasks. In Seymour, a town of about 20,000 in southern Indiana, the company created partnerships to improve education, amenities, and the overall quality of life. These include improved pre-kindergarten offerings, more walking and biking trails, and an emphasis on attracting more businesses downtown.

The companies that will flourish in the future are those that take an interest in developing their talent by positioning them for the meaningful work only humans can do while also recognizing people want to be involved in their communities, continue to learn, and live fulfilling lives.

How do you encourage companies to see the benefit of taking a broader interest in their employees?

To spread these ideas, companies need to talk with each other about the benefits of talent investments in driving their success. Employers can take charge of their companies’ futures by defining exactly what abilities and skills workers should possess, and how to develop and attract that talent. 

Companies must take steps to ensure their workers can fully develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities throughout their careers and lives, regardless of the structure of their work. Learning for life will be an integral part of the work of the future. Employers need to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate. As a result of investing in human work, companies can profit.

Several years ago, Lumina hired a global consulting firm to explore the financial benefits of investing in tuition assistance. One employer, Cigna, found that employees who had participated in its education program were more likely to be promoted and were significantly more likely to be transferred and retained, resulting in higher pay for them while saving the company money.

Even after accounting for the program expenses, for every dollar Cigna invested in employee education, the healthcare giant received its original dollar back, plus another $1.29, all in the form of talent management cost savings.

If you could press a button and make a single change in education or workforce training, what would it be and why?

The durable Rahm Emanuel quote applies here: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

We cannot drift back into familiar ways of thinking out of a misplaced desire for normalcy. We made a massive and sudden shift to remote work this year across large swaths of the economy. Now, we need to re-engineer work in ways that create a better work-life balance while also respecting the environment and our global climate.

We made an incredibly rapid shift to large-scale online learning, but now we need to redesign programs and curricula to take advantage of the technology available to offer better and more robust learning environments for all students. Similarly, we responded to COVID-19 as a society by changing individual behaviors on a previously unanticipated scale to protect public health. Now, we need to find ways to allow everyone to make that kind of difference by serving others.

Bit by bit, we are starting to see a new path forward. Our goal now should be to consolidate these gains into a unified system of earning, learning, and serving others.

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