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Employers in Northern Virginia face challenges finding workers due to labor shortages but are optimistic about economic growth coming out of the pandemic, according to a new survey. 

On Wednesday, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Virginia Chamber Foundation, in partnership with the Northern Virginia Community College, published their 2021 Northern Virginia Workforce Index, a survey of 91 regional business leaders. 

The survey, conducted from late June until late August, asked about a range of topics, including recent and anticipated employment changes, trends and practices in hiring and retention, and the company’s economic outlook, as well as typical requirements and offerings in terms of education, training and professional development.

Three-quarters of the employers who responded to the survey said they were “somewhat” or “very” optimistic about economic growth and more innovation in the next three years. But a little under half (42%) of the respondents said the main barrier to hiring new employees over the past year has been a shortage of candidates, while 36% of respondents said the problem was that many of the candidates applying did not have the necessary education or work experience.

Rising infections and hospitalizations from the COVID-19 Delta variant have undoubtedly delayed a full economic recovery, according to the study. But the study outlines several other reasons why the demand for workers exceeds supply.

The overwhelming majority of respondents (84%) said they heavily rely on conventional recruiting methods, such as online job boards and word of mouth.

Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, said during the Workforce Index virtual launch event Wednesday that these methods “simply no longer yield the level of recruitment and hiring that they used to.”

Kress suggested that companies may be having more difficulty recruiting talent because many candidates do not have high school diplomas or college degrees.

“[Candidates] have skills, they have talents, but they lack the means to put their employment on hold for years while seeking degrees, and the bond that grows between employers and apprentices builds employment longevity, thereby decreasing the costs and losses associated with workforce turnover,” Kress said. 

Kress spoke during a panel discussion that also included executives from Chevy Chase Trust, Helios and NT Concepts.

Employers surveyed shared mixed views about the importance of education in hiring with 42% saying a candidate’s formal level of education was somewhat important or not important, while 53% said it was important or very important. 

Kress said that employers who want more inclusion and diversity need to reimagine how they source talent outside of formal educational institutions. 

Instead, the study suggested employers should embrace alternative methods for attracting new employees by investing in education and professional development through in-house training, paid internships, and apprenticeships.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global innovation policy and communication, said during the panel discussion that Amazon has created more diversity and inclusion through apprenticeship and STEM programs, such as an early childhood education program called Amazon Future Engineer, which targets individuals from underserved communities.

“We’re all talking about the challenges of filling jobs, then why on earth would we ever want to artificially limit the talent pool available to fill these jobs? That would just be counterproductive to business,” Misener said. “As we’re working to overcome our confirmation bias, we need to surround ourselves with a diverse set of colleagues who will come at the same sorts of questions from different perspectives.”

Whether companies embrace these new approaches to job training and professional development remains to be seen, according to the study. However, the study encouraged employers to use “skills-based hiring models, rather than using formal education as a filtering mechanism” to expand their field of potential candidates. 

During the event, panelists also discussed how the pandemic has shifted the culture around work. 

Ethan Gill, president of Helios HR, a consulting company based in Washington, said that when the pandemic started his whole company went remote. But as businesses have started to return to in-person, Gill said his company is very cognizant that many employees desire to continue working remotely – and the same can be said for candidates Helios tries to recruit. 

“We’re still a small midsize type company in the region, so there’s some understanding that our benefits may not be as strong as a Fortune 500 company, but if we can have the right work schedule, and give them comfort and give them the ability to manage their lives… that seems to be the highest priority,” he said. 

A little over a third of respondents (36%) to the survey reported that over half of their workforce would continue working remotely most of the time, but 27% reported that a quarter or less of their workforce will remain primarily remote permanently. 

Most panelists agreed that granting employees the option to work remotely could help companies attract more candidates, but some pointed out that remote work could also create other challenges.

Deb Gandy, managing director at Chevy Chase Trust, said remote work has its advantages in terms of facilitating a work-life balance for individuals but noted that “one of the challenges to remote working is maintaining the company culture.”

“If you're you're accustomed to having your team altogether and interacting with your colleagues and you develop that camaraderie – when you go to a quasi-remote, or in some cases maybe some people working totally remote – how do you maintain that camaraderie is, I think, the challenge to remote working.”

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