Home COVID-19 Career Hub The Skills Gap and COVID-19: Redefining the US Workforce
The Skills Gap and COVID-19: Redefining the US Workforce

The Skills Gap and COVID-19: Redefining the US Workforce

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By J. Thompson

From retiring boomers and preparing next-gen leadership to improving diversity and adapting to geographically dispersed employees, workforce leaders are evolving their strategies to bridge the growing skills gap in the United States.

These disruptive challenges are further magnified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It may take years to fully understand how workforce engagement—whether remote or in-person—will change and how business will be conducted. What we do know for certain is the government workforce’s mission must continue, and the need for employees to maintain access to career-relevant education and training, in order to upskill, is vitally critical to that mission.

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This dual perspective has never been more homogenous for employers and employees alike, whether for federal, state or supporting contractor organizations. Leaders must bridge the preexisting skills gap to meet their strategic goals.

Simultaneously, employees have a sense of urgency to upskill in an environment where budgets are constrained, and the future is unpredictable. It’s crucial that they acquire technical competencies that prepare them to move into “essential” positions.

Few careers are entirely pandemic-proof, but acquiring the right skills and behaviors that enable employees to further their adaptability is both reassuring and empowering to the employee, but also a value-add to the organization.

The Employer Perspective

While leaders debate what the “new normal” will become, these truths remain. Leaders must continue to do everything they can to deliver on their stated task orders or obligations. As society changed nearly overnight, they were forced to quickly envision long-term strategies and human-capital models, or risk falling behind.

Many previously open positions (pre-pandemic) are still unfilled due to a stark undersupply in qualified internal or external candidates. Organizations are becoming more resilient and efficient, in order to absorb the shock of the pandemic, but also to upskill their internal talent to grow in the knowledge-based economy.

Government versus private industry doesn’t matter. They face similar demands for talent. The competition for attracting and retaining skilled employees today is universal. The key is what differentiates organizations. Compensation isn’t always the top consideration. Seeing ample runway for one’s personal and professional growth to take flight can be that key differentiator that makes your organization achieve “employer-of-choice” status.

The Employee Perspective

Conversely, employees are working and/or living in altered workplace environments, juggling modified schedules, or are solely remote. Despite social distancing, this has not (nor will ever) impede their drive to learn, upskill and evolve.

A new trend is developing. Due to greater populations working from home or changing work environments, many more employees are considering nontraditional access to training and education whether through their employer or external resources.

Today, these forces have merged the two perspectives. What benefits the employer, benefits the employee. These are shared challenges, albeit solvable with a singularly powerful solution—online education.

The Skills Gap Was Keeping Leaders Up at Night before the Pandemic

You’re not alone. The skills gap was wreaking havoc on leaders responsible for workforce acquisition and retention long before COVID-19 arrived on U.S. soil.

According to a March 2020 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Study, using survey data from 500 HR leaders nationwide: “74% of respondents report that their companies require the submission of a credential in their hiring practices. But only 26% claim that the credential is used in assessing the candidate’s viability. As demand for competencies grows in the 21st century workplace, 78% of hiring managers agree that they will need to reassess the way they hire, and 45% report that changing hiring practices is a priority in their organizations.”

The Chamber reports, “The demand for skilled workers is greater than ever, but availability is in short supply. Our study finds that 74% of hiring managers agree that there is a skills gap in the current labor market, with 48% saying that candidates lack the skills needed to fill open jobs.”

What’s their go-forward recommendation? They recommend “sharing responsibility” between employers and education providers in order to execute on three key steps:

  1. Increase upskilling initiatives for current employees.
  2. Work with educational programs to strengthen talent pipelines.
  3. Improve alignment between educational program curricula and the skills needed in the workforce.

Upskilling and reskilling need to be more than just watchwords of the moment, but perceived as valued goals within their overall workforce development strategy. It’s a matter of implementing an employer-led, talent pipeline that connects workforce to an education partner with programs developed specifically to the organization, and not just for current employees. This includes access to a vast network of potential candidates with existing job experience who are in-program or have recently completed a degree or certificate program.

Understanding the ROI on Education/Upskilling

Among the challenges facing chief learning officers and workforce managers is measuring the effectiveness or ROI of education. The seven critical questions they should ask themselves (and seek input from partners) are:

  1. What are today’s most critical organizational challenges?
  2. What content is critical to addressing these challenges?
  3. How satisfied are our L&D professionals with that content?
  4. How are resources currently being allocated?
  5. What content areas need the most improvement?
  6. How do we improve essential skills?
  7. How do we overcome roadblocks and challenges?

American Public University is a pioneer and innovator in online education, having provided effective education solutions and partnership support to top federal, government, and private-industry employers.

Joining forces with an invested educational partner like APU can improve your talent pipelines and help your employees acquire the skills they need in order to meet your strategic objectives.

APU can help your organization:

  • Upskill and improve the full talent pipeline
  • Allocate resources to address deficits
  • Develop leadership (succession planning) as a critical priority
  • Increase workforce performance and collaboration remotely
  • Stay as an employer-of-choice to retain your best talent

For effective and healthy succession planning, organizations will need to scale their efforts to develop line-level and mid-level managers to elevate those workers into senior roles. Being strongly focused on a clear vision when rolling out new initiatives will ensure that alignment occurs.

Moreover, the ability to manage, lead and adapt in today’s changing landscape will be challenging unless the organization acts now to develop those capabilities. Thoughtful planning provides the opportunity to take adaptive action today instead of simply speculating on future liabilities and opportunities.

An Education Partnership That’s Built to Adapt to Changing Needs

Nationwide, all aspects of higher education were forced to quickly adapt to the deep and widespread changes necessitated by mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. While the movement to work from home has impacted higher learning differently, American Public University collectively and quickly adjusted to social distancing by working remotely to protect our workforce from the potential spread of the virus—all while maintaining operational capacity to continue serving students.

APU was an early adopter of online learning to expand access to education for the U.S. military—a mobile population with changing schedules. APU continued to innovate, and is today a leading provider of asynchronous, online education to more than 80,000 students nationwide. Despite any initial challenges when COVID-19 hit, APUS was able to transition to an all-remote workforce due to its consistent stance leaning forward as an online institution that embraces continual assessment and improvement based on student outcomes.

The institution was recognized as the five-time winner of the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) Effective Practice Award. OLC is a nonprofit association originally known as the Sloan Consortium, and was one of the first to organize a landing page to help colleges and universities in search of assistance going online in an emergency situation.

The university infrastructure maintained continuity and scalability as we worked to support other organizations. Advisors and staff are answering nearly every call, responding to emails, working with partners, and adapting policies to mirror the changing circumstances. Ultimately, they’re listening and responding to our students and the needs of our team members.

Additionally, faculty members are not only credentialed in their academic disciplines. They were already well-versed with respect to engaging with the media and other experts on topics including online education and public health crisis mitigation.

As we continue to navigate through the ongoing pandemic, we’re focused on big-picture approaches to innovative solutions that our partners can leverage in tandem with their organizational objectives.

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