This Will Be 2021’s Biggest Talent Challenge, and It Could Last for Decades

Mom trying to work at home while her daughter needs school help

Think back a couple of years ago. 

Back then in our pre-pandemic world, demand for skills like tech – a specialty with double-digit turnover – had everyone worried about shortages, inciting an all-in approach to retention. Nobody wanted to lose valuable people to a competitor. An arms race of benefits ensued. 

Flash forward to today and there’s a new retention problem, one that should be raising the same alarm bells. A full third of the workforce is affected, many in business-critical roles, all potentially exiting for competing jobs. The catch is that this time the competitor may not be a rival company, but rather the employee’s family at home. 

The group is working parents. And it’s shaping up to be the biggest talent challenge of the coming era. After a decade of forward momentum – especially for women who were just starting to see the rewards and possibilities of families and careers – the pandemic has shifted progress dramatically in reverse, threatening a mass exodus of important employees as they struggle to manage jobs without school or child care. These people have skills and knowledge. They work in every industry, from healthcare to finance to tech. And in September, CNBC reported that 40% of them had changed their job situation; a quarter reduced hours; 15% quit the workforce completely – more than a third say the exit is for good.

Given all that, you’d think today’s concerns about turnover would generate the same kind of urgency as any other retention problem. But it doesn’t always. Employees who leave for competitors are automatically seen as a company problem. Parents leaving for families can be viewed as a personal problem. Even assessments of the dire situation facing working women – and it is dire – tend to focus on the costs to individual careers. All true. But that kind of turnover has costs – big ones – for employers, too. A third of the workforce isn’t a nameless, faceless swath, but individuals doing jobs you need them to do, and that, in in many cases, they’ve been doing for years. And the costs – in operations, rehiring, and pipeline gaps – are the same whether people are leaving for a new job or to take care of their family at home.

That makes it a business problem requiring a page from any employee-retention playbook. 

Know what your target audience is looking for. When tech companies realized work/life balance was a tech employee priority, they answered with relevant benefits. The same should apply here. Today’s flight risks require family support, plain and simple – answers to how to take care of children who don’t have school or child care.

Be aware of what competitors are offering. Less than half of that 40% that changed job situations quit working; where did the rest go? Probably to competitors who knew what their audience needed. The market might be tough for job seekers right now, but there will always be opportunities for great employees. And many are considering their options.

Make your company look like the right pick long term. Another hallmark of the aforementioned tech recruitment was a focus on careers. As one tech talent exec pointed out, “A top reason employees jump ship is due to the lack of opportunities for advancement and professional development.” That’s even more important now when insecurity about everything from finances to futures has people looking for jobs with some solid ground. People across industries have told us they value career development. Working parents are no different.

Aggressive retention programs do something else: they let people know they’re valued, something that supports retention and productivity. One employee summed up her law firm's support this way: “It makes me want to work my butt off for them.” That kind of message filters throughout a company, and has a long reach.

“Our study focused on working mothers,” wrote an HBR author on retaining working mothers, “but creating a workplace environment that is supportive…extends to all employees.”

That’s something that’s worth fighting for.

Working mom taking her child to daycare during a pandemic

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Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

December 15, 2020

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.