The pandemic created deep divisions in the workforce by eroding opportunity and worsening inequity in our society by destroying people’s livelihoods. But as the country reopens and the economy eases into recovery, I see signs of enduring changes to the way we learn, teach, and work that will help solve the crisis of rising inequality. But we must take action as business leaders to maximize the impact of these trends and usher in a new age of access and opportunity.
Remote work is toppling barriers to opportunity
Until now, location has been central to choice and opportunity in the labor market, drawing high-skilled workers to industry clusters and concentrating top talent in a few thriving hubs. That is fast changing. The shift we experienced during the pandemic has decisively challenged the notion that jobs need to be location-bound. With the rise of remote work and unfettered movement of talent—for the first time—anyone can work from anywhere in the world.
In May 2021, a LinkedIn report showed a 457% rise in remote job postings in the U.S. year over year, while McKinsey predicted that 20% to 25% of the workforce in advanced economies could viably work remotely.
Removing geography from the equation not only lets employers tap into a much broader talent pool, but also dramatically opens up opportunities to people who need greater flexibility at work due to caregiving responsibilities and to those outside traditional employment hubs.
As leaders and hiring managers, we can start by taking a hard look at whether each role we’re hiring for can be done remotely. At Coursera, which is an online learning platform, we have embraced a remote-first model, where anyone from anywhere can now apply for roles at the company. As the chief executive of Coursera, I expect a significant percentage of the workforce to be remote and distributed, taking full advantage of collaboration tools and technologies, while periodically meeting in person at various office spaces, but reimagined as hubs.
Digital jobs provide a promising pathway to workers at risk from automation
Ninety-one percent of U.S. businesses accelerated their digitization plans in 2020. This transformation has created new jobs and put others at risk. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, the pandemic-induced acceleration of automation could displace 85 million jobs in the next five years. With automation impacting low-wage workers the most, McKinsey estimates that more than half of these displaced workers will have to shift to higher-wage occupations to remain employed—requiring very different skills.
Developing foundational and entry-level digital skills widens the door to future jobs. Microsoft forecasts there will be 149 million new digital jobs by 2025, with 13 million in the U.S. alone.
Equipping workers for high-demand digital roles, with the potential for remote work, can elevate local communities by breaking down traditional barriers to economic mobility and allowing talent to sustainably rise from every corner of the country. But making this a reality requires massive reskilling efforts that can only be delivered through new and scalable models of learning and work. Departments of Labor in Tennessee and New York (who are, in full disclosure, both partners of Coursera) are examples of such models in action. To position workers for high-growth jobs, more public–private partnerships are needed to help people develop valuable digital skills.
Digital on-ramps lead workers to opportunities in developing industries
Breaking the cycle of exclusion is key to mobilizing talent from communities that historically have had limited or no access to high-quality jobs. This is especially important now, as the unemployment divide widens on racial and ethnic lines. Research from the Brookings Institution finds, workers from Black and Latinx communities are at high risk of job insecurity, as they are overrepresented in jobs that may be in danger from the rise of automation, accelerated during the pandemic.
Digital on-ramps can enable displaced workers from vulnerable groups to transition to new, rising job opportunities. Flexible, online entry-level jobs pathways, particularly for digital skills, are enabling Americans to regain a foothold in the job market. The Google IT Support Certificate, which doesn’t require experience or a college degree, has helped prepare people for entry-level jobs in IT support in as little as three months. Further, 58% of the program’s participants identify as a veteran, a woman, or as Black or Latinx.
Since such credentials fill skill gaps and meet real-world employer needs, learners are instantly positioned for better employment outcomes.
The fact that digital skills can be applied to jobs all over the world further increases their economic value. And entry-level credentials increasingly provide pathways to degrees, which can lead to career advancement. Many workers pursue postsecondary degrees while working full-time, while others leverage an advanced degree to move into higher roles, such as associate to manager. According to research from Georgetown University, 86% of managerial jobs require postsecondary education.
Building a more diverse workforce requires action on multiple fronts. Integrating industry credentials into more traditional programs like a bachelor’s degree program is one step universities can take to open up opportunities.
Post-pandemic, more women are pursuing STEM skills for digital careers
The pandemic reversed hard-won gains for working women, who were disproportionately impacted and lost more jobs than men. In March 2021, there were over 1.8 million fewer women in the workforce compared to February 2020. However, according to our company’s recent Global Skills Report, the share of overall Coursera course enrollments in the U.S. by women increased from 42% in 2018–2019 to 55% in 2020. And in particularly encouraging news, more American women took up STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, with enrollments on Coursera jumping from 35% to 47% women between 2019 and 2020. This trend, notably, intersected with more women in the U.S. seeking out jobs in STEM. A 2020 study by MetLife found that as women consider career changes after the pandemic, two in five are looking at a STEM career.
This moment presents a significant opportunity to level the playing field for how women learn and work, thereby breaking down systemic barriers in the tech industry and bringing more women back into the workforce. STEM jobs are booming and projected to grow more than two times faster than the total for all occupations in this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This trend will be largely catalyzed by digital jobs, many of which can be done remotely, and offer more elbow room for women to advance their careers flexibly while bringing diverse representation to the field.
Gender equity and representation are complex issues, and limiting them to a “pipeline problem” is at best an oversimplification. However, with the fast pace of change in business and technology, upskilling is essential for all professionals, and it’s a positive sign to see greater gender balance among STEM learners.
Industry leaders are leaning into growing their remote workforce
Ultimately, inclusive work and skilling opportunities can only lead to meaningful impact if there is an ecosystem for wraparound services and last-mile support for those who need help. We’ve seen many companies step up during the pandemic. Goodwill’s Rising Together coalition, which includes Google, Lyft, and Indeed, among other large companies, is a much-needed step toward bringing together companies to holistically support job seekers. This could range from practical interventions like essential transportation and broadband access to helping people build critical digital skills online and offering employment placement support.
Industry-designed online certificates can similarly offer job seekers valuable access to potential employers as well as a range of career resources that include soft-skills training. As America rebuilds, leaders at big corporations like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have ramped up scholarship programs that benefit vulnerable and underrepresented communities.
Right now, the world of work is at an inflection point. We have the opportunity to make real changes that allow more Americans to benefit from the economic promise of a digital future. Creating flexible pathways to upskilling and well-paying remote jobs is an important piece of the puzzle, one which I am personally invested in. Therefore, I invite corporate leaders across America to play a foundational role in reshaping an inclusive future.
Jeff Maggioncalda is CEO of Coursera, one of the largest online learning platforms serving 87 million learners and 6,000+ institutions around the world. He is a lifelong learner and proud dad of three daughters.