Learning from Sudden Economic Change

Intentionally Building a Resilient Workforce
  • Coronavirus presents a template for workforce needs in the face of rapidly changing work environments—much like we anticipate in the Future of Work
  • Youth apprenticeship creates the conditions for a responsive workforce, namely the blend of technical and essential soft skills such as adaptability, problem solving and collaboration
  • As digital natives, Gen Z is well suited to help move your company through planned and unplanned technology challenges (such as moving to a virtual environment)
  • The economic downturn revealed inequities in our economy that can be addressed by the opportunity that apprenticeship presents to communities

We all know change is inevitable. But we don’t always recognize how sudden it can be.

When we talk about the future and the change it will bring it’s usually abstract. It’s something that’s off on the horizon, so distant it’s not clear. Is it even there, or is it just our minds playing a trick on us? We look up, wonder about it briefly and then put our heads back down and go about our days. But the horizon is always there, holding something ever newer, and the future we thought we saw approaches slowly. It arrives so slowly we sometimes don’t even realize it’s here. And, too often we don’t realize it’s changed us until we look in the rearview mirror and reflect on the way life used to be.

That’s not the way Coronavirus is changing us.

It moved from the horizon to fill our field of view in a matter of weeks and turned us upside down. It was a relative instantaneous recognition that things wouldn’t ever be the same. We’ll return to something closer to normal, sure. But even after work meetings are held over a conference table instead of an internet connection, we’re going to be living in a different world.

During the last couple of years there was a lot of talk—and hand-wringing—about the Future of Work. It’s a term that captures the uncertainty around automation and AI, and more specifically, how our workforce would adapt to it. Jobs would be lost to self-driving cars, computer programs that could write an article just like this one and make high-level decision-making faster and better than we mere humans ever could. The speed at which technology is advancing tells us the Future of Work is almost upon us.

But before it’s impacts could be felt, we found ourselves in a pandemic. A pandemic that has taken tens of millions of our jobs. A pandemic that is proving to be a testbed for how we might respond to the Future of Work. Those companies that are able to adapt their workforce and mobilize resource deployment are the companies that will find themselves ahead of the recovery curve.

Youth apprenticeship creates the conditions for a responsive and resilient workforce.

The essential soft skills that we’re all currently relying on today during this crisis—adaptability, problem solving, time management, innovation, communication—these are all things that young people learn best in professional environments where there is meaningful consequence and experienced professionals to model. Moreover, the virtual technology that we used to use for a meeting every now and again but now use for hours on end every day, Gen Z—your apprentices—were born into it. As your first digital-native workforce, technology is second nature.

But it’s also not just about your workforce and technological response to change (and in this case, catastrophic change). It’s also about addressing the inequalities the downturn exposed. Much of our production was maintained through virtual work environments, but large portions of the population—overwhelmingly communities of color—were not in jobs that could be maintained virtually. As a result, these communities are more vulnerable—and many were forced to make the choice between income and health. Emerging from Coronavirus with a workforce strategy that serves to guard against these inequities creates an economy that works for everyone—including your shareholders.

As your employees and customers, Gen Z could be making decisions about your company based on how you mobilize in the face of the pandemic. Even before Coronavirus, 68 percent of Gen Z expected brands to contribute to the social good. As the biggest challenge facing this generation, the pandemic is a litmus test—does your company live its values when the chips are down; does it balance the social good with its corporate profits?

The Coronavirus is transforming us. It’s going to leave a permanent scar on our economy and our collective psyche. But we can learn from it. We can learn about the skills—both essential soft skills and technical skills—that we need to develop in our workforce. From our response to the pandemic we can learn about ourselves as a business community: Are we willing to step up for others in the short run so that we might all prosper in the long run?

The changes that the Future of Work will bring almost certainly won’t be as dramatic as what we’re experiencing this spring. But it will have an economic impact, and if your workforce isn’t prepared for it, just like Coronavirus, the changes brought by the Future of Work could have lasting negative impacts on your business. It’s difficult to look ahead for the next workforce crisis while embroiled in this one, but those changes are just now starting to take shape on the horizon.

Now is the time to create dynamic business practices that prepare our workforce and the economy for the next transformation.

Companies are already investing $240 billion annually in learning and development—and the visionary ones will continue to do so. Let’s make sure it’s the right kind; the kind that links practice and theory, the kind that encourages problem solving and collaboration in addition to learning a technical skill. Let’s make sure that we’re providing meaningful career options for the whole of the economy, not just those that have access to four-year degrees and a built-in professional network.