My college roommate Alex was always the toughest among us. Burly and short-tempered, Alex was prone to extreme behavior like punching walls to demonstrate loyalty to his friends, or esoteric behavior like running for President of Yale College Council on a platform of “Hey New Haven, How About A Little Less Gunplay?” So when NYC-based Alex shared that the two weeks he spent suffering from COVID-19 were “absolutely brutal,” that his Amazon review of COVID is zero stars, and other choice words I can’t repeat in this family-friendly forum, I take his complaint at face value. Characteristically, Alex added that “if all of us have to get punched in the face by this, I’m glad I was near the front of the line.”
These days, more Americans than ever have cause for complaint. Those like Alex directly afflicted by COVID are at the top of the list along with their families, followed by the pandemic’s economic victims: the tens of millions who have lost work or had their hours reduced. And although they’re not complaining, next in line are the millions of heroes risking their lives to treat COVID victims and ensure the safety and continuity of food and medical supplies. Many levels below are those of us stuck at home trying to find a quiet space to work while coordinating Zooming schooling. Then there’s everyone who’s had to listen to one of President Trump’s inane or insane COVID comments. As for opening the country, the first tiger-colored occupant of the Oval Office can’t even figure out how to successfully open the “Opening Our Country Council.” Apparently America did elect Joe Exotic in 2016, just without any of Joe’s human emotion, consistency, or effectiveness.
Beyond this, I’m afraid the complaining has begun to verge on kvetching. The big event in my neighborhood last week was a parade of goats that consume and clear brush to reduce the risk of wildfire. This yielded an angry Nextdoor neighbor complaint attacking the goats due to the risk of attracting live entertainment-starved spectators and concomitant difficulty in maintaining social distancing. I’ve committed not to kvetch about anything because there’s still one sign of the apocalypse that hasn’t appeared: Pizza Hut has restrained itself from marketing a Pandemic Pan Pizza™ (take out or delivery only).
To the kvetching category, add a comment on my last article from a reader who identifies as “Unemployed_Northeastern.” I’m sure “Unemployed_Northeastern” has a boatload of valid complaints, but this one attacks employers as the root cause of unfilled jobs and unemployment, saying they intentionally filter out candidates in order to “keep applicants training themselves on their own dime for the corporation’s benefit,” and that the hiring process is “pantomime theater to keep applicants desperate and training costs at a minimum.” “There is zero chance,” Unemployed_Northeastern went on, “that all of those skill requirements are 1) necessary and 2) so very necessary that they cannot be taught on the job.”
There’s no question employers could have done much more to change their hiring and training ways. But the bon vivant known as Unemployed_Northeastern might as well be attacking goats, because with over 25M newly unemployed Americans, griping about employers as the cause of unemployment seems so February. In April, the cause of unemployment is an unprecedented decline in revenue at millions of American businesses. Most employers this side of Amazon are now hunkered down in survival mode.
About this time last year, much ado was made of Jamie Dimon’s announcement that JPMorgan Chase would invest $350M in the future of work, because “the new world of work is about skills, not necessarily degrees.” As a result, the bank planned to deploy $200M to develop and pilot “innovative new education and training programs aligned with high-demand digital and technical skills,” $125M to “strengthen education and training systems,” and $25M to improve “actionable labor market data.” Notably, even during the halcyon days of 2019 JPMorgan Chase didn’t pledge to alter its own hiring and training practices; the initiative committed only to working with MIT “to identify and forecast future workplace skills and leverage that knowledge to build and accelerate opportunities internally for upskilling and reskilling.”
Similarly, last summer the Trump administration announced that Ivanka’s ballyhooed “Pledge to America’s Workers” program had yielded commitments from 300 employers – including Microsoft, Apple, Lockheed Martin, and Toyota – to train more than 12M workers. Ivanka-led events at the White House featured testimonials from workers who benefited from training programs. Of course, as Bloomberg noted, “much of the training would have been done in the absence of Ivanka’s initiative.” So even if carried out, it wouldn’t have stopped Unemployed_Northeastern from kvetching.
Most employers know what’s right and pre-COVID at least paid lip service to it. In a February poll, 96% of “HR decision-makers” agreed that they “should be offering more apprenticeships and internships.” Also pre-COVID, 37% of managers thought training budgets would increase. But calamity mars even the best-laid plans. As JFF’s Eric Seleznow has pointed out, the U.S. lost 86k apprentices during the Great Recession, a drop of more than 20%, and training budgets saw similar declines after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Likewise, everyone from Haley Glover at Lumina Foundation to Goldie Blumenstyk at the Chronicle predicts that higher education’s new favorite revenue stream – employer tuition reimbursement – will slip away. “They’re some of the first to go in a downturn,” said Glover. “They’re discretionary, and when companies run low on income, they cut back.” More broadly, last summer’s announcement by the Business Roundtable that 181 CEOs of large companies would henceforth “lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders” including employees, has fallen by the wayside. If employers like Amazon (a signatory) can’t keep their workers safe, what hope is there for closing the skills gap?
If I had a nickel for every article I’ve read over the past few weeks urging employers to continue investing in upskilling, outskilling, tuition, training, or apprenticeships, I’d have enough for a pay phone call to Unemployed_Northeastern (but maybe not enough to find a working pay phone). But the labor market we have and the one we wish for aren’t one and the same. If employers weren’t able to close the skills gap at the economic peak, there’s no chance at all at the trough. So I doubt we’ll hear much more about the JPMorgan Chase or Ivanka initiatives as unemployment crests and America tries to pick up the pieces. For all employers, there are must-haves and nice-to-haves. In the last month, most decision-makers have gone from having a list of nice-to-haves somewhere in their office to losing that list in a fast-growing pile of urgent, must-haves. Innovative hiring and upskilling initiatives seem like a relic of better days.
If shell-shocked employers have turtled, who’s going to help find jobs for 25M American workers? I’m particularly thinking of the millions of retail and food service workers who were just making ends meet, but whose jobs are at greatest risk of never returning. Don’t look to colleges and universities. The article to which Unemployed_Northeastern took exception pointed out traditional higher education’s abject failure to provide pathways to today’s good digital jobs. And with impending massive state disinvestment due to broken budgets (sales tax, income tax, oil and gas revenue) – particularly in the red and purple states arguably in greatest need of socioeconomic mobility – coupled with an unprecedented enrollment decline that the American Council on Education predicts could reach 15% even if campuses open this fall, it’s now clear that our system of higher education, which seemed merely rickety, has been held together by chewing gum and sealing wax.
There’s no question that faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs are needed now more than ever. But given persistent hiring friction when things were going well – even in the face of glitzy announcements to the contrary – it’s imperative that new public and philanthropic investments in putting America back to work extend beyond upskilling and education and include actual placement into good jobs. Having spent over 20 years in education, I’m not against upskilling. That’s like being against motherhood and apple pie. But upskilling isn’t sufficient to solve the colossal problem we now face. What I am against is spending precious time and resources on mindless upskilling i.e., upskilling with no clear employment destination. What 25M newly unemployed Americans need now are jobs, not the opportunity to learn online or (eventually? hopefully!) sit in classrooms.
It’s time we moved from a paradigm of funding only education and upskilling to funding job placement, with clear standards on what constitutes a good job worth paying for (e.g., full-time $50k+ with multiple career paths). There are many potential models, all of which require intermediaries to stand between employers and candidates and clear away the many frictions that block unemployed candidates from good full-time jobs. How about an American version of the UK’s “pay for performance” funding model for apprenticeships which funds employers and intermediaries for every successful placement of a qualified candidate into a good job? Why not assemble a consortium of staffing companies and fund them to screen, match, hire and staff candidates with existing employer-clients at highly discounted rates for a period of time? By absorbing all the risk from hard-pressed employers (including serving as employer of record for the duration of the trial period), the staffing industry’s ubiquitous and proven temp-to-perm model has the potential to put millions back to work quickly. Time is of the essence, because with each passing week of unemployment, self-esteem, motivation, and skills degrade and employable candidates become less and less employable. And the last thing any of us need in 2021 is 25M kvetching Unemployed_Northeasterns.