Today, millions of Americans who labored in retail and hospitality jobs, which remain decimated by the stay-at-home directives issued during the Covid-19 crisis, might need to pivot to new fields in search of employment. New research highlights ways in which people from hard-hit industries, such as hospitality, retail, and transportation might transition to stronger ones through targeted upskilling.
With unemployment claims in the United States now reaching more than 45 million, the pandemic is laying bare the great deficiencies of the American education and workforce infrastructure, which has never been well-suited to helping low-wage workers navigate to higher economic ground.
Prior to the pandemic, my team of education and workforce researchers was focused on how and why millions of workers displaced by the 2008 financial crisis did not recover economically, while the top 1% of the U.S. labor market captured 85% of the income growth in the years that followed the Great Recession.
Over the course of more than 100 hour-long interviews, we heard working-age adults say things like: “Where do I turn?”; “There’s no roadmap”; and “I had no GPS.” One after the other, whether in Austin, Providence, or Washington, D.C., these people wished for more guidance — someone to point them in the right direction after a big setback. The ability to find a new job and become upwardly mobile has little do with skills or ambition. Rather, low-wage workers lack access to relevant and actionable information to navigate unexpected job transitions.
Today, millions of Americans who labored in retail and hospitality jobs, which remain decimated by the stay-at-home directives issued during the Covid-19 crisis, might need to pivot to new fields in search of employment.
Transitioning from one industry to another, rather than advancing in a more linear way from role to role within a specific occupation or field, presents an economic chicken-or-egg problem that has long frustrated job seekers and labor market economists alike. Hiring managers typically demand that workers demonstrate the exact skills and work experience “required” to do the jobs for which they’re applying. But outside of formal education and training programs, there aren’t easy ways to endorse the acquisition of skills that are transferable between industries or to validate skill similarities and put them into neat packages that employers recognize. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released before social-distancing measures took effect, we already had 71 million low-wage workers without degrees but with the abilities to perform higher-wage work who were consistently overlooked by employers.
Enabling pivots into new fields is a wholly different challenge from the one we faced during the Great Recession. But unlike in 2008, we now have ways to chart a more equitable recovery and to guide state and federal investments to get Americans back to work faster.
Decades of digital breadcrumbs left by online job postings and applicant tracking systems, used by most employers to sort and filter candidates, have given rise to a new breed of AI-enabled labor market information that enables us to identify on-ramps — and lane changes — to opportunity for our most vulnerable workers.
We can now map the trajectories of people who have successfully made the leap to different industries and higher-wage roles. And we can see which skills have been particularly valuable in propelling job transitions across fields.
These three charts from the labor market analytics firm Emsi show some of the shifts made by thousands of workers in three industries from 2010 to 2020. The data tracks people’s first major job transition three years after their first stable job — one in which they had worked for more than 90 days.
The first chart shows that out of a sample of 6,813 hospitality and food services workers, 138 (2.0%) jumped to human resources roles. In a more detailed analysis of those social profiles and resumes, we can see that those job seekers successfully navigated their transitions by adding complementary skills such as talent sourcing and payroll and benefits administration to the skills they already had. Developing skills in fundraising, event management, and relationship building enabled 344 (5.0%) to move into marketing, advertising, and public relations, while 129 (1.9%) pivoted to business analysis and operations.
The chart above surfaces lane changes for workers starting in retail. Out of a total of 10,708 retail workers, 328 (3.1%) moved into accounting and finance by layering on skills in auditing, risk analysis, and compliance; 534 (5.0%) were able to move to human resources; and the largest set of transitions shifted 1,126 retail workers (10.5%) to marketing, advertising, and public relations.
If these percentages seem low, that’s precisely the point. Relatively few workers have successfully navigated career pivots across domains. Sadly, these shifts tend to reflect labor market exceptions rather than the rule. Workers are charting paths that are idiosyncratic rather than prescriptive.
Despite their infrequency, however, transitions to better opportunities are doable, and they’re critical to track. Capturing the skills that workers add to the transferrable skills they already have offers a roadmap we can begin to replicate for other workers so that they can navigate to better jobs with higher-than-average earnings.
This is true even in industries that may appear to have few opportunity for career pivots. For transportation workers, as an example, we might assume (and the data bears this out) that a great many workers stay in transportation and warehousing.
From a sample of 3,066 transportation workers, 921 (30.0%) stayed in the same field. Yet we can capture anomalous movements into other industries. Hundreds pivoted to production and manufacturing (6.7%), marketing (5.7%), or sales (7.2%), advancing to higher salaries ranging from $61,429 to $90,306 per year.
We can see how and where investments in the development of new skills can move entire categories of workers into better-paying work. Displaced workers do not have to start from scratch. A retail worker might be 80% of the way toward a role in human resources. A server might be 30% of the way toward an in-demand role as a network analyst. Now more than ever, newly laid-off workers in these fields need to see their own potential and a way forward.
It’s hard for learners to evaluate the economic returns associated with some 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities and more than 700,000 unique credentials. But through this new lens on career trajectories, we can begin to build more targeted, precise, and cost-effective training experiences that can lead to exponential gains in wages.
Companies including SkyHive, AstrumU, FutureFit AI, and Emsi have all been working on artificial intelligence-driven platforms that enable better navigation. They’re using data to help workers recognize their skills gaps and figure out how to fill them through various educational content engines, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), employers’ own training and development content, Pluralsight, and other forms of digital learning.
Against that backdrop, policymakers should take note of research suggesting that investments in not just education and training but also navigation can boost social mobility. The data tells us that investments in the first two are a necessary but insufficient component of the public sector’s crisis response. By illuminating already-trodden pathways, we can reproduce them through more-precise reskilling opportunities optimized for local labor markets and ultimately enable greater career mobility as we recover from the next recession.
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