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Don't Make the Mistake of Assuming Essential Frontline Workers Are Unskilled

  • Date: 
    February 9, 2022

    Workers most threatened by the pandemic deserve training for higher-paying careers, but colleges can't ignore skills learned on the job.

    As tough as this pandemic has been for just about everyone, essential workers have had to bear some of the greatest burdens. Healthcare workers, teachers, first responders, caregivers, food production workers, grocery store workers, hospitality staff, retail staff, line cooks, servers and more — all are folks whose work exposes them to risk.

    But some of these jobs are not like the others. When the pandemic is eventually behind us, some of those occupations will once again be viewed favorably in terms of opportunity, benefits, and a living wage or better. But other essential workers will find themselves in jobs that don't pay well and never did, have minimal if any benefits and have a very poor outlook given that the pandemic only accelerated the global race to workplace automation. They deserve better, and one way we can "pay them back" is to help them access pathways to higher-paying work and careers.

    Even before the pandemic, projects were underway to consider how to create new career pathways for workers in industries like retail and hospitality, where the signs all pointed to increased use of automation and a decreased need for labor. Creating "crosswalk" opportunities for workers allows them to parlay their experience and expertise in one industry or occupation into career success in adjacent ones. For example, as a grantee of the Walmart Foundation, which invested $100 million over five years to increase worker mobility, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning supported efforts to help retail workers access work-relevant education, training and support for upskilling and career advancement, including transitions to nonretail employment.

    Still other initiatives were mobilized during the pandemic to support the upskilling or reskilling of frontline or displaced workers. For example, the Markle Foundation's Rework America Alliance prepares unemployed and low-wage workers for jobs that are in industries most likely to need skilled workers as the economy recovers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta outlined a competency-mapping approach to helping hospitality workers access healthcare career pathways. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan launched Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship program that provides tuition-free community college to Michiganders without college degrees who worked in essential industries during the COVID shutdown.

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