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Business leaders are the key to ending labor shortages for good

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As the country reopens, businesses are bouncing back and all those Americans depending on unemployment have more than 9 million job openings to choose from. But despite the progress we’ve made over the past few months, many stores are still hanging “Help Wanted” signs and companies are doubling down on incentives to attract the talent they need. The jobs are there, employers are willing, but the workforce is unlikely to suddenly reappear, unless leaders take charge of the situation.

Waiting for Congress to take command of the labor shortage is short-sighted, however. While government funding and programs are powerful societal kickstarters, the approval process for funds and plans for initiatives take time. This shortage represents a turning point for our economy, one that we can’t afford to miss, and waiting for government action will most certainly mean missing the window for this golden opportunity.

At this moment, business leaders need to step up and take on the challenge of solving the labor shortage from within. By incentivizing employees to train in their fields, changing hiring practices to do away with the outdated four-year degree requirement, and pursuing public-private partnerships with community colleges to create a talent pipeline, business leaders can lead the effort to get Americans back to work.

The first step is a mindset shift by organizational leaders. The perfect employee isn’t sitting on a shelf, waiting to be sorted, found and plugged into a pre-existing role. Companies will have to take greater ownership over the development of their own workforces.

In a tight labor market, we in the business community need to be more imaginative and expansive in recruiting, mentoring and developing the talented people we need to achieve our objectives. The capability to mold and create the workforce we need is within our grasp through the help of upskilling and reskilling, both of which enable leaders to retain valued employees and fill key roles at the same time. 

This investment in the workforce shouldn’t stop with skills-based training, and business leaders would be wise to offer experiential learning, such as apprenticeships, to guide new employees in gaining the experience they need, as well as the skills, to fill available positions.

The removal of outdated hiring requirements — in this case, the traditional four-year college degree — is another problem that can be solved only from the inside. It’s not that a four-year degree is bad, but for many jobs it isn’t necessary. 

There are millions of qualified applicants who could fill many of the open positions companies desperately need, but in order for that to happen, business leaders need to get out of their own way and remove this self-imposed barrier to curating a capable workforce. Instead of relying on a college degree to filter for “qualified” applicants, leaders should consider motivated workers with two-year degrees and skills-based training when possible. 

The final piece of the puzzle is public-private partnerships with community colleges. There are many parts of this process that leaders can do in-house to reshape their existing workforces, but the future of the labor market depends on students coming out of programs with the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen fields. The only way to achieve that outcome is for business leaders to partner with community colleges to specify the certifications they are looking for and help build programs that result in workers emerging ready to start work immediately. This step is a powerful opportunity for industry leaders to guide workforce development for the future, ensuring mutual success for businesses and applicants alike.

The headlines have decried this current labor shortage and are calling it a catastrophe, but forward-thinking business leaders will be able to see it for what it truly is: an opportunity to drive change and reshape our notion of a skilled workforce. 

Government funds and programming will take us only so far, and it is, therefore, the responsibility of business leaders to take charge of this shortage and turn it into a moment of transformation. Investing in our current workforce, moving away from a degree requirement, and partnering with the institutions who are shaping the workers of tomorrow are all strong steps we can take today to guarantee that one day soon, labor shortages will be a thing of the past. 

Caren Merrick is CEO of Virginia Ready Initiative, a 501(c)(3) public-private partnership dedicated to reskilling Virginians and helping them secure in-demand positions.

Tags economy reopening hiring labor shortages Workforce development

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