Best Buy employees in South Portland, Maine.
Photograph by Ben McCanna — Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
By Daniel V. Yager
May 16, 2017

Ask any expert about the future of work and you will hear about a world dominated by artificial intelligence, 3D printing, an on-demand economy, and five generations in a virtual workplace where almost any worker can perform almost any work from anywhere they choose.

For employers, this poses at least two significant challenges. The first is shared by our entire society in ensuring an education and workforce development system that provides workers with a constantly evolving set of skills needed to perform the ever-changing demands of work. This requires a significant commitment of resources, and employers do their fair share—spending more than $600 billion of the $1.1 trillion spent annually on education and training, as determined in a recent Georgetown study.

But where should those resources go? Both employers and employees need to make a commitment to continuing education and a constant upgrading of skills to address the rapid changes in work caused by new technology. In addition, we need to recognize that for many, there need to be other alternatives besides a college education, such as apprenticeship programs that can provide technical skills for the jobs of the future, particularly in manufacturing.

So what is item number two? Virtually any employer will tell you one of its foremost competitive challenges is identifying, attracting and retaining talent at a time when workers feel less and less tied to long-term commitments to any single employer.

How do employers compete? Well, compensation obviously has to be competitive but, particularly among Millennials, today’s workforce is also looking for workplace policies and cultures that fit their personal and family needs.

Corporate policies are continuing to evolve in a number of areas, including flexibility, employee engagement, diversity and inclusion, and educational assistance, among others, according to a report by HR Policy Association members, most of whom are HR executives for multinational companies. Today’s companies not only want to do the right thing by their employees but they have to if they want to keep them.

Unfortunately, this evolution is not occurring in government policies, which continue to operate under mid-20th Century assumptions that employers will only give a fair shake to their employees if required to do so by the government. For example, one area gaining considerable public attention these days is paid leave. Large companies generally provide higher pay and more generous benefits than others and many are expanding these programs to appeal to new generations of workers. Meanwhile, there is a move afoot at the state and local levels to require a minimum number of days of paid leave. Not surprisingly, most large employers already provide the minimum amounts of leave or more than each of these laws require.

The problem is that each state or local law has separate rules on how the leave is administered — vesting, annual carryover of unused leave, leave eligibility, etc. This poses significant complications for large companies that seek to provide uniform benefits for their employees in multiple states. To address the growing patchwork quilt of state and local laws, we propose a voluntary federal standard—to be determined by Congress—that would provide a floor of a certain number of days and certain minimum specifications on how the leave is to be administered and to whom it must be provided. If, and only if, a company met or exceeded that floor and provided the benefits consistent with the standard, it would have a “safe harbor” from the numerous state and local strictures.

The retention of a fundamental level of workplace protections will always be necessary. This is but one example from our report on how we can upgrade our existing workplace regulation architecture to reflect changes in how work is performed and how employment relationships are evolving.

Daniel V. Yager is president & CEO of HR Policy Association, a members organization of chief human resource officers representing US multinational firms.

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