All of a sudden, in 2020, the new norm for many desk workers was that they were working from home. In the last few months, offices reopened and many people returned to a hybrid of remote and on-premises work. Others remain fully remote and some are selling their talent online as independent workers. This shift to a more distributed workforce has resulted in some early winners. Workers with disabilities, especially those with mobility challenges, have long been disadvantaged. Their requests to work from home were deemed to be special accommodations that many employers were unwilling to make. Now it is a new normal.
Pre-pandemic, people moved from rural areas to cities because that’s where the jobs were located. As COVID-19 infections soared in major cities, people started to flee to places that were perceived as safer. Now, many rural communities are actively attracting remote workers by marketing these areas as family-friendly, slower-paced, and better housing values. New investments in broadband from expected infrastructure expenditures will likely accelerate this movement.
Urban areas that are historically underinvested look to take advantage of this new distributed work model. People living in neighborhoods that have lost employers may not need to commute several hours to their jobs as long as they have the skills and resources to compete effectively in the evolving distributed work environment.
This brings us to several critical questions. Are the education and workforce training systems equipped to support remote workers? Do these systems know the skills, competencies, and basic knowledge that are in demand by remote employers and contractors? Do they know the composition of the workforce living in their communities and how that is shifting as newcomers arrive? What are the products and services that these systems need to offer, and how can they be adjusted over time to meet new conditions? Finally, who are the remote competitors to local education and training providers?
People who work remotely exclusively, especially those who are independent contractors, operate in labor markets that may no longer be defined by geography. They may be competing for work with others who are equally skilled but less costly. They may perform tasks and functions that require acquiring a growing number of new skills and specialized knowledge. Traditionally defined employability skills, such as teamwork, verbal communication, and time management, must be reconsidered in a fully remote context. In some cases, employers will provide the needed training. But in many cases, and especially for independent workers, the cost and burden of keeping pace are placed solely on their shoulders. It also means that education and training systems will need to anticipate these new needs and have programs in place to meet demand. Unfortunately, the information systems that are required to help in planning simply do not exist. It isn’t the same as convening local employers to discuss their needs. More fundamentally, the conception of an employer-driven system gets turned around onto workers for the growing number of instances when the employer or client is in a far-off location. It is instead a worker-driven model.
These information challenges work against workers as well. Just as in the case of education and training providers, fully remote workers do not have a clear idea of where the market for their skills and talents is going. They don’t know the size and scope of their competition, nor do they know what may be coming around the corner regarding new demands. Their strengths are based on what they know and can do; many may not be skilled in being their own business that is constantly juggling their time between doing the work for which they are trained, acquiring new knowledge, and keeping pace with their industry.
As education and training systems dynamics expand to include remote work and workers, the model that supports the public side also begins to go out of sync. Fundamentally, funding for public systems is place-based. In Illinois, the K-12 and community college system relies on property taxes. State general revenues are added to the mix as well as tuition for community college students. By in large, local employers play a large role in the funding mix. As work becomes less place-based, the public system will gradually subsidize businesses outside of the service area. The size of the population of workers who are engaged by businesses outside of the area isn’t making this a large problem now, but it will grow, especially for more rural areas that do not have a large employer base in their tax mix. Tuition increases alone add to the burden carried by workers and may not make up the difference in costs to provide an ever-changing mix of educational and training services.
The change to a more distributed workforce offers new opportunities and benefits. It is not, however, without new challenges to the design and operation of our education and training systems. The change also opens doors to workers and communities that are underinvested or skipped over by economic development initiatives. It also puts new burdens on workers and communities, some without systemic solutions. We now have two years of experience to support new thinking on what can be done next.