Rethinking Workforce Development in Light of the Pandemic

A Response to Catapult Revisited

July, 2021

By John O’Leary, Senior Manager,  Deloitte Center for Government Insights 

What a difference a pandemic makes. When the Boston Foundation’s Catapult Papers took a look at workforce development in late 2019, the economy was strong and unemployment was low. Then the pandemic hit, and the economy was thrown into turmoil, with some industries, regions and demographics especially hard hit.

“Revisiting the Catapult Papers: What is still relevant in the COVID recession?” from the Boston Foundation and authored by Jerry Rubin, President and CEO of Jewish Vocational Services, examines workforce development in the new, post-pandemic reality. The essay is a timely look at that new reality facing workers, upskilling organizations and policy makers.

Though much has changed, one thing endures: Companies still have a need for skilled workers, and the best way for workers to get ahead is through enhanced skills. The so-called “jobs paradox”—the fact that companies are still struggling to find workers with the skills they need despite high unemployment—means that workforce development remains critical. 

"Though much has changed, one thing endures: Companies still have a need for skilled workers, and the best way for workers to get ahead is through enhanced skills."

Indeed, skills may be more important than ever due to the pandemic’s disruption of the economy. Before the pandemic, automation was displacing some workers while others saw their roles evolving. That trend continues, perhaps has even accelerated. But the pandemic brought remarkable economic disruption, and both displaced workers and incumbent workers may need new skills to switch industries, or to adapt their skills to fit the more digital, virtual workspaces. 

Rubin starts by noting the “obvious and dramatic need for quality workforce development services” in light of this pandemic’s disruption. He correctly observes that any general data about unemployment fails to capture the sector-by-sector differences. Some industries have seen major downturns (such as air travel, hospitality and food services) while others have actually seen increased demand (such as online consumer fulfillment). 

Rubin contends that workforce development agencies have to be ready “to shift resources to those sectors that have real talent demands.” After all, it does little good to train people in skills, such as housekeeping or food prep, if the demand isn’t there. One of the underlying philosophical principles of the Catapult Papers was that workforce development had to be seen as valuable for both the individuals being upskilled and the companies hiring them. 

Not surprisingly then, Rubin renews the call to “focus on significantly scaling up proven training and employment programs,” noting that a half-dozen or more programs nationally have measured up, with “training and employment programs [that] have shown impressive, statistically significant impact through gold-standard random control trials.”  

The message couldn’t be clearer. The need for upskilling, particularly in disadvantaged populations, remains strong. “The COVID pandemic has even further revealed the income and racial inequities in our economy,” notes Rubin, urging workforce development organizations to examine their role in addressing these issues.

Rubin makes a strong case that the lessons shared in the Catapult Papers are not only still relevant, but they may in fact play a critical role in our economic recovery.

John O’Leary is a future of work leader within the Deloitte Center for Government Insights at