No Time to Waste in Preparing Our Workforce for Tomorrow

With election season underway, candidates across the country are offering their visions for job creation and economic prosperity. In state capitals, council chambers and the halls of Congress, conversation centers on the “future of work,” fueling both excitement and anxiety over the disruptions that technology brings to the workplace. While there is considerable talk about whether innovation will eliminate or create jobs, greater attention should be paid to the actions required to train and prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

The need for laser-like focus on the changing nature of our workforce is especially urgent when a staggering 36 million working-age Americans lack the ability to effectively use basic English language, literacy and numeracy skills. Recently, the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies released a study warning that alarming segments of our population—especially in low income and minority communities—experience lower rates of digital readiness, increasing their vulnerability to labor market transitions.

Everyone should have a chance to acquire skills that allow them to adapt and thrive in an evolving workplace. While there is no single solution to closing the skills gap, we know from firsthand experience in some of America’s largest cities that there are approaches that work.

Some argue the answer lies in opportunities created by the technology sector. Others point to policies that might save jobs in industries suffering decline such as coal mining or manufacturing. Jobs in emerging and mature industries have valuable roles in broadening economic prosperity, but many Americans are not prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.

Who will train those not yet sufficiently exposed to skills required in an evolving workplace? In our respective careers, we have seen how innovative restaurant and retail companies have remained a significant place for millions of Americans to get hired and acquire the valuable skills, habits and work ethic that will help them thrive in the workforce.

While many people live in areas without a tech company, a manufacturing facility or skills training centers, it is nearly impossible to find a community — rural or urban — without restaurants and retail. And data shows that service sector employment offers not only an entry-point, but advancement, with 90 percent of restaurant managers and 80 percent of restaurant owners starting in entry-level positions.

Although the nature of work will continue to evolve, there is consensus around the continued need for workers with soft skills to handle workplace demands and solve problems. From customer service to teamwork, these skills are at the heart of service sector experience.

As technology infuses the service industry, workers of all skill levels can learn how to use digital tools in new ways. While it can sound daunting, workplace technology is often modeled after tools used in our personal lives. Gaining the confidence that comes with utilizing technology at work and developing a mindset that embraces lifelong learning is critical to future success.

Positive steps are being taken to ensure today’s workers are prepared for tomorrow’s success, but we can make more progress. For example, there should be greater collaboration between employers and local skills providers, not only at colleges, but at high schools, trade schools and civic organizations. Additionally, communities and businesses can develop new methods for people to access meaningful and accelerated learning, from nano-degrees to credentialing to mobile apps.

Expanding ways to acquire in-demand skills quickly and without exorbitant cost is critical to ensuring the most vulnerable among us are not left behind. There are signs that the service sector is increasingly a place that is doing so, as restaurants and retail are fertile ground for learning outside of traditional college paths.

For example, the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and the American Hotel and Lodging Association created the first ever federally registered restaurant, food service, and hospitality industry program, the Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship, which includes on-the-job training and related technical instruction. More than 30 retailers partnered with the National Retail Federation Foundation to launch RISE Up, a training and credentialing initiative for learners of all backgrounds and education levels that offers guidance in areas from interview skills and customer service, to retail tools and technologies.

The service sector offers valuable first- and second-chance opportunities for growth inside and outside of the industry. While we are excited by the early adoption of new ways of learning and teaching, there are also important roles for policymakers, NGOs, and skills-providers to play in helping workers overcome skills gaps and prepare for the ongoing and inevitable changes in a rapidly evolving workplace.

No one solution or industry can save the American worker from the inevitable disruptions of the future. But as candidates for elected office propose policies to prepare our workforce for the future, they should look to the service sector as critical partners in helping the labor force adapt to the changing landscape of work.

Broderick Johnson and Robert Doar are senior advisers for the Path Forward Coalition: Johnson is a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, and previously served as the chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and assistant to the president and cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama. Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and previously served as commissioner of Human Resources Administration under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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This opinion has been updated to reflect the full name of Johnson’s firm.