Millions of Americans are struggling to find work amid the pandemic. The U.S. economy is down 13 million jobs from its precrisis trajectory, as Strada Education Network Director of Research Andrew Hanson noted while kicking off a Feb. 24 webinar on the latest Public Viewpoint research findings. Many of those lost jobs and wages may not be coming back.

So how do we help Americans get back to work?

We posed that question in the webinar, which featured two experts who approach the challenge from different perspectives. 

Patti Constantakis is a director on the economic opportunity team for She leads the Walmart Foundation’s Equitable Talent Systems portfolio, which seeks to engage employers in more equitable hiring and advancement practices.

Martin Kurzweil leads the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R. He and his team study predictive analytics, adaptive learning platforms, and alternative credentials, among other research areas, with a focus on postsecondary student success.

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Employer investment in the education of workers can help the bottom line. 

Constantakis said Walmart, the world’s largest employer, has been rethinking career pathways for its employees in part to develop and retain talent at the company. That means investing in upskilling and reskilling employees, particularly as technology changes how Walmart conducts its business.

“Investing in our workers is not only good for them and good for society, but in the end, it’s also really good for business,” she said. “We will do better if we do that kind of investing.”

About five years ago, the company created Walmart Academies, which offer hands-on skills development for store-level employees at roughly 200 Walmart locations around the country. The program, which allows employees to earn college credits for their training, is designed to help workers earn promotions. Walmart also created its Live Better U program, through which employees can earn high school credentials and college degrees at a tuition rate of $1 per day.

Learn more about helping learners better navigate their education options.

2. Learners struggle to find good information about alternative credential pathways.

The shorter time to completion, flexibility, and perceived job relevance of nondegree and short-term credential programs can make them appealing, Kurzweil said. Yet while the scale and variety of both offerings have increased significantly since the last recession, reliable details remain hard to find.

“It is extraordinarily difficult for a learner to navigate the landscape of offerings on their own,” Kurzweil said. “There’s just not good information and not accessible information to understand which have job market value, which are fairly priced, et cetera.”

Learn more about the value of targeted education opportunities.

3. Despite growing interest in skills-based hiring, the practice remains fairly rare.

Several large employers in recent years, particularly in IT fields, have emphasized skills over degrees in hiring. But Kurzweil said skills-based hiring typically is unsophisticated and relatively limited in scale.

“For most firms, skills-based hiring is implemented as a resume keyword search,” he said. “It is still the case that degrees and certain high-value industry credentials are requirements in a majority of job listings, even where skills-based hiring is happening.”

Walmart is working on skills-based hiring, and does not require store managers to hold college degrees. Constantakis said the company believes in the equity benefits of the practice. “Do we need that degree? And if we don’t, can we do a much, much, much better job at signaling what are the skills that we actually need for these jobs?” she said. “We’re going through a process right now at Walmart where we’re really looking hard at that. And it’s hard. It’s not easy work to boil it down to what are the skills. But it’s crucial that we all do it so that we can actually shift to a more equitable system.”

Learn more about the value of transparent hiring practices.

Further reading: An audience member asked during the event about promising models for the alternative credential pathways that Kurzweil mentioned during the event. Here are links with some details on these three regional projects — in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as a broader approach in Indiana — all of which feature collaboration between government, employers, workforce boards, and higher education institutions.

Paul Fain is a journalist who examines the intersection between postsecondary education and the workforce as a Strada senior fellow and moderator for Strada’s Public Viewpoint webinars.