Ask most businesses in most industries what they need most and they’ll give you the same answer: More skilled workers.
Across America, there are a record 11.3 million job openings and nearly 60 percent of businesses say they are short on skilled workers.
This “skills gap” is not a new problem, but it’s gotten worse amid the pandemic and so too have the structural inequalities that were preventing many Americans —especially women and minorities —from getting ahead even before COVID.
I’ve seen this workforce and opportunity to challenge from every angle, having led Synchrony, a Fortune 200 financial services company, and serving on the boards of several non-profits and educational institutions.
American businesses are at an inflection point.
We all want a more skilled, inclusive and diverse workforce, but that requires a fundamental rethink of how we recruit, hire, train and promote.
Synchrony and many other businesses are rising to the challenge and bringing new innovation to the challenge. Here are just a few lessons that are becoming clear.
Skills over degrees
To start, companies should shift their mindset around who to hire and rethink old paradigms.
Historically, businesses looking for workers have asked: What degrees do you have and what have you done?
Now many are asking a different question: What capabilities do you have and what could you do with the right support?
Asking this question broadens a company’s talent pool while also expanding opportunities to a more diverse group of people with unconventional backgrounds.
This is why Synchrony recognized 90 percent of its roles to no longer require a four-year college degree—up from 50 percent in 2020.
This one step alone has allowed us to make progress toward building the kind of diverse team that study after study shows is essential to any businesses’ success: Diverse companies perform better, hire better talent, have more engaged employees and retain more people.
Make every job a good job
Amid the pandemic, many women have continued to bear the majority of childcare demands, which is one reason why women’s labor force participation is now the lowest since 1989.
In the last half of 2021, a record of 25 million workers also left their jobs.
This all suggests people are finding too many jobs just don’t fit their financial or lifestyle needs. So the businesses that find the best talent will be those who pay family-sustaining wages and offer more flexible, open and empathetic work environments to fit the unique needs of today’s workers.
Create new ladders of opportunity
It’s critical for businesses to do more to empower people from non-traditional backgrounds to not just get a job but to build a meaningful career.
At Synchrony, we are launching a program offering tech apprenticeships to people from underrepresented populations. We are also bolstering leadership training programs to advance diverse talent and increasing senior vice president-level sponsors who are personally invested in helping high-potential talent get ahead.
Businesses are even rethinking how to help people go to school. Traditionally, companies had tuition reimbursement programs that required employees to pay for tuition first and wait to get paid back later. That shuts too many people out, which is why Synchrony and others hit on a simple solution: expand options to make funds for tuition available up front. The result: increased access to education and skills for those who are unable to pay out-of-pocket in advance and improved educational equity for those from historically underserved communities.
Forge public-private partnerships to drive systemic change
As important as these steps are for individual companies, our impact is even greater when we forge partnerships and join expansive coalitions working to drive change and remove systemic barriers.
That’s why I am so proud of the opening of the Synchrony Skills Academy, a new education and skills training center, housed at our Connecticut headquarters. The Synchrony Skills Academy will equip underserved high school students and adults in the community with tech skills which will help them compete for the most in-demand jobs for today’s economy.
This public-private partnership —which includes involvement of the Connecticut Governor’s Workforce Council as well as local schools, skills organizations such as General Assembly and non-profits like District Arts and Education— is a model for how businesses can be better stewards and create a more skilled, inclusive workforce.
I think back on my career —which began in a call center earning $5.50 an hour — and know there is no way I’d be where I am today without the help of colleagues and leaders who championed me and gave me access to the opportunity.
Today’s workers need that support too, but delivered in a way that fits the unique needs of 21st century businesses and workers. Most workers today aren’t on “career tracks,” with the straight linear progression it implies. Instead businesses and leaders should embrace and commit to facilitating career journeys, offering multiple, flexible pathways for entry and career growth.
Across America, there are millions of hard-working and talented people with the capabilities to help businesses. But there are barriers in the way. The business community just needs to summon the will and creativity to knock them down.
Margaret Keane is Executive Chair of the Board of Directors of Synchrony and Co-Chair of AdvanceCT, a non-profit working to advance economic development in the state.