After COVID, Reskilling Women is National Priority

training for women in the workplace post-covidRetraining workers post-pandemic has become part of the national conversation in the United States.

We’ve often written about reskilling on this blog, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic changed the economy considerably. Suddenly certain workers were classified as essential; many people had to learn to work from home and whole sectors, which required in-person interaction, suffered. One executive described the pandemic as a reshuffling of a positions within organizations – people were sent home to lockdown last year, but when they came back to work, they might not necessarily end up in their old roles.

Brandon Hall Group last year released research, mid-pandemic, which suggested that 56% of companies were concerned about reskilling workers who might return to different jobs than the ones they’d left, while 43% of businesses were concerned about determining whether employees will be returning to their old jobs, or whether job needs will change because of new business conditions.

These are conversations and concerns that are happening within organizations, however. What about the workers who have lost their jobs, and who are looking for work in a radically different post-COVID economy?

The federal government is getting into the retraining conversation with the Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students Act of 2021, or theJOBS Act. The JOBS Act, which was introduced earlier this month and has yet to be passed in Congress, aims to expand federal Pell Grant eligibility to job training programs, rather than just colleges and universities.

The JOBS Act was just introduced, so it’s not in effect now, but it would allow Pell Grants, which are traditionally federal grants used only for higher education, to be used as financial aid for short-term job training programs that would land the participants in high-wage, skilled jobs that currently need workers, like healthcare, manufacturing, construction, or other skilled trades.

“A key component of the American Jobs Plan is training our workforce,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo at a White House press briefing on April 7. “This is a reality. The changes in the American economy, many of which have been massively accelerated by COVID, are very scary for millions of Americans.”

Who needs to be reskilled?

While many have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, the pandemic has had a particularly devastating effect on women in the workplace. Data collected by McKinsey showed that during the pandemic, women began dropping out of the workforce.

One in four women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers as opposed to one in five men. Working mothers were hard-hit, particularly mothers of children under 10 years old. Nearly a quarter of working mothers with kids under the age of 10 were considering leaving the workforce at the time of the survey — only about 13% of fathers with small children were considering leaving their jobs.

In fact, in heterosexual dual-career couples with kids, female partners spent more more time on household duties during the pandemic than their male partners, no matter their work status. They also said they felt they were under more pressure at work, and reported feeling burned out and exhausted.

The pandemic amplified existing inequalities in the workforce, hitting Black women hardest of all. Black women reported feeling most exhausted in the workplace, for example. More concerningly, says McKinsey, 39% of all jobs held by Black Americans—compared with 34% held by White Americans— were threatened during the pandemic by reductions in hours or pay, temporary furloughs, or permanent layoffs, totaling 7 million jobs.

As the economy has gradually grown back, Black and Hispanic women haven’t gained back the jobs they’ve lost. According to a recent report, employment has remained low for women of color. Total employment for Black women is 9.7% lower now than it was in February 2020. For white workers, unemployment fell to 5.6%, while jobless rates for Black and Hispanic workers were 9.9% and 8.5%, respectively.

This may be a result of the pandemic’s effect on industries mostly staffed by women of color, like leisure, hospitality, food service, and the care industry.

“We have millions and millions of women, mostly women of color, working full-time, caring for our loved ones, living in poverty,” said Raimondo. “It’s time to make those investments so they can have a dignified job and so that we can shore up our communities.”

What can private companies do?

The JOBS Act will likely have little effect on white collar knowledge workers, especially those who currently have jobs. However, this program and others like it will be important to organizations suffering from a skills gap and seeking a supply of employees with specific highly sought-after skills.

It’s also important to realize that women, specifically women of color, are going to need help re-entering the workforce after lay-offs, furloughs, or dropping out of the workforce to teach remote school for a year or care for sick loved ones.

Organizations can support women coming back to work by offering additional skills training or flexibility, such as remote work opportunities. In fact, some organizations have changed their hiring practices as a result of the pandemic, instituting remote hiring policies, and hiring for permanently remote positions. Flexibility and family-friendly policies can help women get back to work without burning out.

“Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” said sociologist Jessica Calarco last year, as she discussed the unpaid labor of women in the home and their pandemic-related struggles. By offering women training to bring them up to speed, retraining to move them into new jobs, and flexibility, organizations can give women a safety net at work.