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How Companies Are Rethinking Employee Engagement to Win the War for Talent

July 29, 2021

Caroline Swanson, APCO Intern, also contributed to this piece.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the usual ways of working for employees around the globe — initially with widespread layoffs, followed by more than a year of working remotely for many employees. This decline included the departure of nearly three million women from the U.S. workforce, and particularly women of color, shifting workforce demographics and necessitating a new approach to competing for talent.

The COVID-19 recovery talent shortage in the United States poses a significant risk to organizations looking to fill their talent pipeline and threatens the country’s overarching economic recovery efforts. With more than 9 million open positions across the country, now is the moment for companies to craft creative engagement solutions to entice employees — particularly women — to return to and remain in the workplace.      

So how are companies addressing this challenge? One trend we’re seeing is an increased focus on building a talent pipeline while expanding internal benchmarking and goal setting to support more gender-diverse workforces at all levels. Aerospace, tourism and travel faced major repercussions from the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, resulting in vast numbers of pilots retiring early. When travel bans lifted and commercial travel reopened, major carrier United Airlines announced a commitment to onboard 5,000 new female and diverse recruits to its United Aviate Academy over the next several years and set a goal of hiring 50 percent female and/or people of color from the program.

Disproportionately affected by job losses or elected exits from the workforce during the pandemic, more women are experiencing a prolonged absence from their professional fields. Industry leaders such as Amazon and Mastercard saw the benefit of retraining or “upskilling” before the pandemic began and have expanded those programs as a way to fill needed gaps. And last fall, Audible launched its “Next Chapter” returnship program that encourages caregivers — especially mothers — to return to work. Audible’s program is a 16-20 week-long, paid, full-time internship that prepares individuals for the opportunity to gain full-time employment. Returnship programs like these welcome women into various occupational fields by honing their professional abilities for long-term success.

Not only are reskilling and upskilling critical strategies to attract talent back into the workforce, but these types of programs are highly desired by existing employees and are a key component of an effective engagement and retention strategy. They are also a key driver of building a compelling employer brand. The list of companies introducing workplace training opportunities and weaving in tuition reimbursement or other subsidies to encourage continuing education continues to grow. APCO research shows that these investments are not only expected by the next generation of workers and customers, but companies offering them are also viewed more favorably than those taking other actions such as raising wages or providing unlimited paid time off.

Organizations are also rethinking how they engage employees through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Employees are increasingly interested in their employer’s social footprint – a trend that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, following a noticeable drop in female engagement around and after the murder of George Floyd. Women want to work for companies that are making a positive impact in the world and looking for ways to get involved. Embracing this moment, Wendy’s recently launched a series of training programs centered on sustainability and culture-building, created a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer position and formed six new employee resource groups, including “Women of Wendy’s” and “Parents and Caregivers Support Group.” At APCO, we’ve seen marked uptick in participation and engagement across our own Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s), the creation of new ERGs and a high level of support for our Accelerating What’s Right initiative. Collectively, these efforts highlight how employees across all industries increasingly expect organizations to continue to deliver impact both inside their own walls as well as in society more broadly.

To attract new and returning talent, and especially female talent, companies must embrace the needs and interests of working women. Organizations that are acting creatively and flexibly to reduce the barriers for women to return to the workplace will be best positioned to future-proof their talent pipelines. These conversations are already transforming business practices and policies as employers of all sizes recognize the heightened challenges faced by female employees, notably mothers and caregivers. While we’re still understanding the full effects of COVID-19 on our work lives, a focus on employees is a catalyst for a new era and future talent for women in the workforce.

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