A Better Normal

American Staffing Association President and Chief Executive Officer, Richard Wahlquist discusses the future for the US staffing industry.

Q: What are the main challenges and opportunities currently facing your labour market?

A: America is facing a labour shortage of historic proportions as our economy continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as extended unemployment benefits have ended, millions of workers are choosing to stay on the sidelines instead of going back to work and Covid-19 continues to play a significant role in people’s decisions about when and how they would like to return to work. With more than 10 million current job openings that employers just cannot fill, the staffing industry in the US finds itself at the intersection of challenge and opportunity.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show that US employees left their jobs nearly 20 million times between April and August this year. Amid a vibrant economic recovery, employee resignations are trending 60 per cent higher than the same period last year and 12 per cent above the spring and summer of 2019, when we saw the most robust employment market in almost 50 years.

The overall impact on labour market supply is even more dire. The BLS data on resignations does not include the loss of millions of Baby Boomers who moved up their retirement dates and who are not currently planning to return to the workforce.

Q: How do you see the industry’s role evolving in both the short and longer-term? What is the outlook for flexible staffing?

A: It’s a worker’s market in the US, and that means increased demand for staffing and recruiting firms to source hard-to-find flexible and permanent talent. The American Staffing Association’s Staffing Index is consistently reaching record highs, reflecting both the current need for talent as the economy continues to grow, as well as confidence that economic growth will be sustainable.

The world of work is pivoting, and many believe that labour market shortfalls in several key sectors could be the new norm for years to come. While technology, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence have become increasingly important tools to enhance productivity and trim head count, the premium on human capital as a driver of growth, productivity, innovation, and service delivery has never been higher.

Workforce engagement, workforce development, and workforce flexibility are the pillars upon which successful business will compete and differentiate. These pillars also form the core of the staffing industry’s playbook and its future.

For the staffing sector, pandemic-induced labour supply imbalances are also putting a renewed focus on the strategic utilisation of extended workforces – including temporary employees, contractors, vendors, alliance partners, consultants, and specialists. Use of extended workforces gives organisations access to the best on-demand talent available.

Liquid work – also known as fluid work and long a hallmark of the staffing industry – is fast becoming the gold standard for both extended and permanent workforces. Liquid workers move between departments, projects, teams, and companies – all while adding to their skills sets, résumés, and future earnings potential. A liquid workforce ensures that organisations have access to team members with highly agile skill sets. This is an essential part of talent optimisation in a world being shaped by the accelerated pace of change fuelled by digital transformation.

By helping clients develop and maximise the potential of their traditional, permanent workforce as well as their extended workforce, the staffing industry will continue to support companies and workers to achieve higher degrees of flexibility and agility than ever before.

Q: WEC is promoting social innovation as a way to accommodate new challenges. What does this mean in your market? Has that changed with the Covid crisis?

A: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed much of the world of work forever. In the United States, we are seeing that what has been labeled as the period of Great Discontent, Great Disengagement, and Great Resignation is manifesting itself in people not wanting to go back to their ‘old normal’ when it comes to work and career.

The key to attracting and retaining top talent – both flexible and permanent – is creating workplace cultures that inspire high levels of employee engagement. After nearly two years of pandemic-driven pain, grief, and disruption, workers are leaving organisations in record numbers in search of purpose-driven workplaces. They’re looking for empathetic work environments that are inclusive, offer opportunities for personal development, and exhibit a strong commitment to environmental, social, and corporate governance responsibility (ESG).

At the same time, current labour shortages and labour supply imbalances have created new opportunities for our industry to help clients create much more diverse workforces than ever before. In the US, ASA and its members have created initiatives and programs to help identify and recruit workers that have traditionally had a more difficult time accessing meaningful employment.

Our industry is uniquely positioned to help create conditions that end systemic and often generational employment barriers – conscious and unconscious – based on race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, and identity. There’s also a strong and growing focus on helping older workers and individuals with physical or cognitive limitations find jobs that embrace their abilities and help put them on a path for life and career success.

As part of our commitment to building and supporting a strong and sustainable workforce, the industry is also focusing on the upskilling, reskilling and retraining of American workers at all stages of their lives. ASA research has found that nine in 10 Americans (92 per cent) believe that employers should do more to train workers in the new and evolving skills they require. Investment in workforce development gives organisations a significant advantage in recruiting and retaining talent, and it advances the short term and long-term interests of societies at large.

Q: How prepared is your market for the post-Covid world of work?

A: Research from Gartner and the World Economic Forum suggests that we are in the midst of another significant revolution in the history of work. The global pandemic has triggered the ‘hybrid revolution’ that is resetting the concept of workplace and work.

But the hybrid revolution is more than just providing employees with an array of remote work options. Hybrid work requires the adoption of new workplace models and the development of new workplace mindsets.

The new world of hybrid work will largely be built around two key principles: enhanced flexibility – including for workers in service industries and professions where remote work is just not feasible – and a portfolio-based approach to talent acquisition, talent deployment, and talent development.

One of the country’s top priorities is to increase labor force participation rates. And, again, forecasting models all agree that the supply of qualified labour will continue to be surpassed by demand for the foreseeable future. Our industry will play a key role in helping to grow and optimise the labor force by meeting the evolving needs of talent and the new challenges facing all employers in a post-Covid world.

Q: What actions are you taking to support your members, their client companies, and workers to lead in the new normal?

A: From a business perspective, normal has always been the enemy of the new, the disruptive, and – too often – the innovative. We all need to begin thinking and talking about our post-Covid world as neither a ‘return to normal’ nor as ‘the new normal’.

Our focus should be on transformation, on creating ‘the new better’ – on creating ‘a better normal’.

Of course, being able to lead in a new and better normal is dependent on creating and maintaining a regulatory environment that is conducive to innovation, job creation, and economic growth– with a strong focus on protecting and advancing workers’ rights and best interests.

In a meeting earlier this year with the new US Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, ASA committed to working with the administration to help the government ‘see around the corners’ when it comes to identifying labour issues and policies that promote employment growth, workforce development, productivity, and competitiveness.

ASA has made that same commitment to help its members ‘see around the corners’ and provide them with resources and information to help them identify trends, challenges, threats, and – most important – help them leverage new opportunities for enabling talent and optimising workforce productivity in a post pandemic world of work.

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