Masters of Leadership: Secretary Eugene Scalia and Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

Two of the nation’s leading workforce experts predict a successful return to normal—with some changes.

By Mark Toner

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia predicted Monday that the record job losses sparked by the coronavirus outbreak would largely be temporary as the economy rebounds. Even so, Secretary Scalia and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President & CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP predicted that some elements of work life would likely change for good in the years to come. 

“All of our research says to us that it’s going to be more normal than we think,” said Taylor. “I’m convinced that we’re going to have a new normal, but I don’t think it’s going to be that abnormal.”

Taylor joined Scalia at Monday’s Masters in Leadership series, sponsored by NVTC and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), whose president and CEO, bestselling author and NVTC board member Gary Shapiro, moderated the event. 

‘Fluid and Shapeshifting’

Scalia struck a similarly optimistic tone in his remarks. Acknowledging Friday’s “grim” job report bringing the number of displaced workers to 20.5 million following the widespread economic shutdown, he noted that surveys suggest that the vast majority of layoffs and furloughs—88 percent—are believed to be temporary. Conversely, during the Great Recession, only 30 percent of job cuts were temporary. 

“So many of [these jobs] are actually still there,” Scalia said. “That’s part of what makes the downturn we’re in right now so unusual and daunting, but I think it holds a little more promise potentially than past economic difficulties we’ve been in. This one’s been in a sense self-induced, not the result of problems in the underlying economic fundamentals.”

“There’s a lot of hardship right now… but there is the possibility that we come out of this and get back to where we were not so long ago,” Scalia added.

The greatest challenge to date, Scalia said, has been “how fluid and shapeshifting” the economic changes have proven. The Department of Labor shifted rapidly from supporting paid leave proposals to helping states deliver on the expanded unemployment insurance provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Scalia also stressed the importance of two Trump Administration priorities—apprenticeships and worker training systems—saying they will be critical in supporting economic changes coming out of this and future downturns. “We want to be ready,” Scalia said.

At Work, a Not-So-New Normal

Both Scalia and Taylor predicted that the workplaces that will emerge as the pandemic subsides will look different—with more remote work and fewer open offices, as well as with a greater emphasis on the mental health and well-being of employees. 

Some 64 percent of salaried employees and 49 percent of hourly workers are now working from home—up from 3 and 2 percent, respectively, as the year began, according to Taylor. The good news? 68 percent of employers don’t anticipate additional layoffs in the months to come, he added, and 99 percent anticipate that furloughed salaried workers will return to work in six months.

“We’ve got to get people back to work,” Taylor said. “Must we do it responsibly? Yes, and we are doing that.”

As physical offices reopen, it will be critical to consider how to communicate with employees about workplace safety. “Words matter,” Taylor said. It will also be critical to encourage workers to learn new skills, using such tactics as reverse mentoring to help older workers develop technology skills from their younger colleagues. (SHRM has a full range of resources focused on reopening the workplace; see NVTC's COVID-19 Resource Center for links to these and other resources.)

Both speakers expressed confidence that the nation and its workforce will emerge from the pandemic largely unscathed. “Long-term, we’ve pulled together as a nation,” Scalia said. “It’s a shared experience. I think some good will come of that.”

The next Masters of Leadership event is on Friday, May 22 and will feature former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. For more information, click here.

Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.