As we close out 2020, we the people are tired. Essential workers, healthcare heroes and frontline warriors have been bearing the brunt of the impact on our education and hospital systems, as well as businesses and organizations, both private and public. Non-essential workers are tired from zoom fatigue, quarantine orders, the election and justice-seeking. A crevasse divides red from blue, and we are tapped out of empathy for the other side.
Working parents are exhausted from having to blur the lines between caregiving and work—juggling both at once … 24/7. Even before the pandemic, as many as 73 percent of employees reported having some type of caregiving responsibility that could take up anywhere from 24 to 40 hours of their week. Now we’re doing both simultaneously.
But it was all hidden from view, especially from employers—all of the work revolving around caring for our children and aging parents, our sick, injured and disabled loved ones. And then in one fell swoop, there we were in one another’s kitchens, garages and basements, with kids and pets interrupting our video calls as we attempted to balance work, education and survival all at once.
In the midst of all of this juggling, it became clear that only a select few can actually “buy time” away from this frenzy. More affluent families are able to buy their way out of “time poverty”—the phenomenon of having too many things to do and not enough time to complete them. They can substitute money for time by purchasing goods and services that save time—paying for childcare and learning pods, for example. The implications are immense because we know that parental wealth and socioeconomic status are the strongest indicators of children’s educational outcomes in the U.S.
But what about everyone else? The bottom quarter of wage earners—those making less than $27,000 a year—have lost almost 11 million jobs since April, according to Harvard University economist Raj Chetty. The poorest half of Americans accounted for approximately 80 percent of those lost jobs. Without recourse to school and child care, women exited the workforce at alarming rates, prompting C. Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, to name the mass exodus a “shecession.” Women, especially women of color, have borne the brunt of caregiving responsibilities.
It’s all out there in plain sight—the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the inadequacies of the American education and workforce infrastructure.
Rapid reskilling efforts have therefore become the latest buzz. Lower-wage workers need better support, guidance, funding and skills training—yesterday. But greater investments in education and training will not work until we solve for this first-order constraint of time.
Time is the biggest barrier—the biggest point of friction when it comes to companies allocating time for learning new skills. Organizations often do not carve out time for reskilling or upskilling. For instance, despite all of the new-fangled upskilling initiatives or the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into new programs by Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, the tacit expectation is that employees will magically find extra time to upskill themselves on top of the myriad other responsibilities they are juggling.
But many working parents, who make up roughly half of our workforce, have lost their child care, and they do not have “time off” to develop new skills on their own. Employers must therefore embed more learning opportunities that are integrated into workdays—learning experiences that are hands-on, experiential, work-based, contextualized in the real-world and tied to clear performance outcomes.
University programs, too, must evolve to serve working parents and student parents, who make up one in five college students or 22 percent of all undergraduates. Our systems are not set up for people to navigate just-in-time learning pathways that teach lean manufacturing, data management, cloud computing or whatever the hot skill may be, and actually fit into the schedules of students who are also parents.
So, despite how tired we all are, we cannot let ourselves off the hook. The problem to solve is in plain sight. Workers and learners will never be able to advance unless companies and educators develop new strategies to salvage working learners’ most precious and limited resource: time.