WASHINGTON — Singer-songwriter John Legend says he's tired of going back to his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, only to find many members of the local community excluded from work.
In Springfield and in so many of America's lowest-income neighborhoods, kids go to school every day dealing with the stress of knowing that a loved one is incarcerated, Legend said during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Talent Forward 2019 event last week. Even after incarcerated individuals complete their sentences, they encounter many obstacles in their efforts to find work and return to living a normal life, he said.
"We're excluding them from so much … we're excluding them from their family and community," Legend said. "They don't just disappear — they're just not seen. The solution is not to prevent them from contributing."
Talent shortages are still an industry focal point going into the next decade, yet swaths of the American population are either underrepresented in the workforce or struggle to develop the skills necessary to thrive in it. Incarceration, though, is just one issue impacting employers' talent pipelines.
Throughout the Talent Forward event, experts from top organizations and nonprofits laid out visions for tapping into disadvantaged groups and ensuring individuals are prepared to take on future jobs. It's a task made even more daunting by technological change and other factors, but that hasn't stopped top companies from experimenting.
#1: The digital skills gap may be the biggest one
Experts debate the validity of the so-called skills gap, a term often used to describe a gap between the knowledge and experience workers have and the kind employers need. But the skills gap is more than just one gap, said Gayatri Agnew, senior director of Walmart Giving, the retailer's philanthropic arm. The digital skills gap may be the most significant of them all.
"The skills gap that Walmart and I are most concerned about is the core digital skills gap," Agnew said. "To me, it's the gap that underscores all the other gaps."
Specifically, the skills that define this gap include both the operation of devices and basic technical language. The lack of these skills, which are fundamental according to Agnew, present barriers for those who don't receive the time or opportunity to develop them.
It's a point echoed by Steve Preston, CEO of Goodwill Industries International, who spoke during the panel that preceded Agnew's. Employers, according to Preston, need to understand the basic level of skills needed that transcend the requirements of any one job.
"While many employers are training employees to meet specific talent needs, many people may not have the basic foundational skills to successfully enter that training," he said, noting that adults respond well to practical, hands-on training — perhaps part of the philosophy behind Goodwill's expanded digital training partnership with Google.
#2: Companies won't ignore the role of social issues in recruiting
HR departments are increasingly encountering activism highlighting the relationship between recruiting practices and broader social issues, including incarceration. Legend is so passionate about this issue that he founded FREEAMERICA, an activist group with mass incarceration at its central focus, in 2014.
Companies have since partnered with Legend and FREEAMERICA with the goal of reducing barriers for entrepreneurs affected by incarceration.
That includes Bank of America, whose global head of environmental, social and governance Andrew Plepler explained the company's decision isn't just an acknowledgement that it is comfortable supporting individuals who have been incarcerated.
It's also in step with recent moves by corporations to be accountable to society at large, as signaled by Business Roundtable's updated mission statement.
"There's an expectation that businesses are going to engage in some of the most intractable problems in society," Plepler said during a panel with Legend.
While businesses like Bank of America can invest in "systemic reform," he said, "if we can unlock our own hiring pipeline, that's when we're really going to see success."
Other social issues intersect with the skills gap, including discussions around diversity and inclusion. "If you don't have diversity and equity, it means there are thousands of people in this country, on this planet, who will be unable to unlock their potential," Naria K. Santa Lucia, senior director of digital skills and employability at Microsoft Philanthropies, said on an HR Dive-led panel.
Microsoft has multiple outreach methods around access to skills training, Santa Lucia said, including a program that sends volunteers to schools to teach teachers who don't have computer science backgrounds about the field. The volunteers teach those teachers until they're ready to launch computer science classes of their own, she added.
Executive buy-in is key to the success of such outreach. "This isn't just lip service," Santa Lucia said, "it's a directive from the CEO that's adopted by all of us."
#3: Employers can expect never-ending 'reskilling'
Building a talent pipeline requires looking to internal candidates as well as external ones, but training continues to be a costly and complex endeavor, recent research shows. That doesn't mean the pace of needed training will slow for employers or employees.
But beyond resources, employees also need to be prepared to tackle the task of continuous learning, according to Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of IT job training nonprofit Per Scholas.
"Part of what we teach our students is how to learn," Ayala said during a panel. "If we can get people into IT now, they'll likely need to figure out how to navigate through all the changes that will transpire."
Even the phrase "reskilling" can conjure frustration and is sometimes unhelpful, said Andrew Dunckelman, head of education and opportunity at Google.org, the tech company's charitable arm. "By and large, most of us reskill every day all the time," he said. "We need to match the kinds of credentials that are available with the skills that are out there."
Moreover, stakeholders will need to rethink financing models for training, he noted. Private companies and governments alike have a role to play, and both need to figure out how to leverage educational institutions —especially community colleges.
"It is a sizable commitment, I don't want to downplay that," Dunckelman said. "But we need companies to step this up."