For our interview, Cheryl Oldham took the call from her home in Alexandria, Virginia, because she wasn’t feeling well. It served as a reminder of the pace and thoroughness of changes to workplace culture since the pandemic began two-and-a-half years ago as well as a fitting introduction to our interview. Oldham is the senior vice president of education and workforce programs at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and vice president of education policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. She knows a lot about the privilege and opportunity flexible work provides.
But flexibility wasn’t always the norm. When she was the parent of young children 20 years ago, people in the workplace treated caregiving as “a personal issue that you just need to deal with.” Fast forward to 2020: “Employers are saying this is really critical to my workforce, and I want to support my working parents, and how do I do that?” Oldham has been one of the leaders behind that shift, which, in her experience, began before the pandemic.
A two-generation issue: Making the case for child care
Starting in 2017, she and the foundation began to assess the true cost of child care for employers. They began to go state by state, quantifying the economic impact of the lack of child care, and leaders began listening. By 2020, they found that “76 percent of businesses saw employees leave and almost half of those businesses said employees lost were women.”
“We wanted to make the case that childcare is a two-workforce issue.... We were deeply invested in this idea that childcare is an important educational foundation,” which would have benefits for the workforce of tomorrow while also serving as a critical work support benefiting the workforce of today.
During the pandemic, interest in child care benefits surged from business leaders. Retention, performance, organizational growth, and brand impact were among the benefits companies identified as investment soared for programs supporting working parents. But there were other benefits too: community standing, gender equity, and employee diversity. Companies began asking what they could do to support working parents. The solutions need not be as intensive as building an on-site child care facility. Instead, it was to understand who your working parents are—and what they need.
Flipping the paradigm on workforce development: Start with the demand side
Childcare is only one of the issues Oldham is passionate about. In many ways, her advice on child care benefits is the same advice she gives to workforce development organizations: don’t start with the supply side, like what training you can provide workers. Start with the demand side.
“The system that currently exists is backward, in terms of how we think about skills training, education, post-secondary training,” she said. Across the US, we look to the supply side to “create the programs that will provide education and training [for workers] to advance.” Instead, she asked, “wouldn’t it be great if we started with employers to ensure that what we’re delivering is aligned to what industry needs and wants in terms of workforce education and skills?”
As Oldham sees it, the breakdown is that workforce training providers are left to build programs without widespread engagement by the employer community. We should start with organizing employers across industry and giving them the tools to lead so we can create more effective programs that better serve the job seeker. Additionally, local community engagement is key to understanding what the skills shortages are in a particular city, state, or region.
“We fund what we value,” she said. “Investment [in workforce development] is minor compared to how much we invest in traditional higher education.” She acknowledged that this is a controversial take, but it’s backed by data: in 2018, higher education institutions received $1.08 trillion in revenue from federal and nonfederal spending. In contrast, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act received about $24 billion in federal funding during a four-year period (2014–2018), and Career and Technical Education federal funding is around $1.5 billion per year.
A dynamic economy, innovation, and underserved populations
Oldham spent eight years in the President George W. Bush administration working in postsecondary education, overseeing the coordination of vocational and adult education, postsecondary education, and federal student aid. “There’s a new effort around education and training benefits that employers could provide,” she said. Benefitsbeyond training and child care are evolving as the full range of worker needs are becoming better understood.
How we finance these benefits is up for debate. One strategy Oldham would like to see may dramatically help serve low-income students and adults: using Pell grants to support more diverse skills training. “It’s extraordinary to me that we cannot seem to move this idea of Pell grants for shorter-term credentials,” she said. To do so would mean we need to address the assumption that full accreditation is synonymous with quality assurance for worker outcomes.
Building for a dynamic economy requires us to step back and analyze how the systems work, how they should work, and what we need to get us there. Data are needed, including labor market information and data on in-demand jobs. Then, we need to know how to create pathways for people to get from where they are to those jobs.
The gulf remains wide, with few leading solutions to close it. Oldham said that as of September 2022, “we have more than five million more jobs than we have people in the labor market looking.” Until and unless we prioritize solving this challenge, our economy will remain vulnerable and willing workers will remain on the sidelines.
Elizabeth Vivirito is a Midwestern-based writer and communications professional.