February 6, 2023 — Modern Economy Project
The workplace changes wrought by the pandemic prompted many Americans to reevaluate their relationships with employers. Nearly three years since the pandemic upended work habits around the globe, we’re now rethinking how legislators, businesses, individuals and employees can collaborate to strengthen America’s economy.
How can we support the growing number of people choosing to be independent contractors and the businesses that rely on them? How can communities ensure that people’s skills are matched to the jobs in highest demand? And how can employers best support the communities where they operate?
At the Modern Economy Project, we’re dedicated to connecting policymakers with the current economic reality and finding ways to ensure the conversation in Washington is based on that reality.
That’s why our first event of the year, in partnership with The Well News and fellow sponsor (and MEP member) TechNet, focused on “Building Resilient Communities: Leveraging Employers to Increase Prosperity.”
Just steps from the U.S. Capitol at Charlie Palmer Steak, we discussed key case studies that explored the vital relationship between employers and their communities and how economic debates in Washington can better connect with reality.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the former chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, is no stranger to finding ways to modernize old ways of doing things.
Kilmer, who previously worked in economic development in Washington state, said that the nation's competitiveness will be hindered “if we have a Congress that’s focused on the wrong stuff.”
“The folks I represent have zero patience for political bull,” Kilmer said. “They want us to solve their problems. They want us to embrace the notion that we are in a global competition, and they want to know we’re doing everything we possibly can to help their families and the communities in which they live.”
At the local level, we heard from community leaders who shared examples of how employers and governments are working together to ensure that they’re ready to meet this moment.
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer described how community leaders in his Delaware county launched a program called 1000 Kids Coding to provide local students with coding skills and education. During the pandemic, New Castle County expanded the program to adults who were suddenly unemployed, including bartenders and restaurant employees. Meyer said that the program is designed to reduce the skills mismatch that may be contributing to the local and national labor shortage in some industries.
“If you look at what the majority of our students are learning, you’ll see that it is to participate in the industrial economy,” Meyer said. “And I think this is why … we find ourselves in a situation where there are more jobs available than there are people looking for work. We’ve created this huge mismatch of skills, and I see that as a failure of our education system.”
Community leaders in Manchester, New Hampshire similarly worked together to ensure residents can learn the skills they need in today’s economy. Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said that the local business community developed a nonprofit called Manchester Proud and raised millions of dollars for the underfunded public school system, because they recognized “public schools are integral to the success of our businesses here in the city of Manchester.”
“We're making sure that the students have the curriculum necessary to meet the job needs in our local community,” Craig said.
But adapting to the post-pandemic economy remains a challenge for many local communities. Antwanye Ford, the president & CEO of Enlightened, Inc., as well as vice chair of the U.S. Black Chambers and Board of Directors member of the National Association of Workforce Boards (both MEP members!), said that workforce boards, local businesses and community leaders must collaborate on finding ways to adapt to the “new paradigm” where remote work means people are no longer filling downtown offices as much as they did a few years ago.
“I think employers are now looking to say, what do we do more effectively to adapt to the hybrid world? How do we make sure our downtowns and our suburban areas still have a workforce that people live and work where they are? And how do we stimulate this economy with more entrepreneurship and innovation?” Ford said. “We’ve been creating these ecosystems with large businesses working with mid-size to small [businesses], because we're all in this situation together.”
Meanwhile, data shows that Americans are valuing flexibility in their work more than ever before. Liz Wilke, principal economist at Gusto, another coalition member, shared insights about data that found a growing number of Americans are choosing to become independent contractors instead of full-time employees and businesses are opting to rely on them for specific projects. The pandemic only accelerated these trends.
“All of that change has sort of come together all at once to really start a renegotiation about what it means to have any type of employment relationship, that no longer is wholly centered on that traditional employee-employer relationship that so much of our labor policy is built around,” Wilke said.
The Modern Economy Project will continue to convene policymakers, experts and key stakeholders to identify how to best build upon these relationships in our evolving economy in 2023. We’re looking forward to more conversations this year about how we can modernize our policies and promote economic opportunity for all.
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