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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Fortune: We Need a G.I. Bill for Frontline Workers, the Heroes of COVID-19

COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc, as the disease has infected more than 8.6 million Americans, 225,000 of whom have died. It has also elevated a set of real heroes: the frontline workers who risk their lives every day to make our lives possible.

These heroes include medical workers such as doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, as well as schoolteachers, checkout clerks, bus drivers, shelf stockers, pharmacy employees, restaurant workers, and trash collectors who are in direct contact with the public. Unlike office workers, computer programmers, and analysts, they don’t have the option of working from home via Zoom. As a result, frontline workers are much more likely to contract the virus than white-collar workers. In addition to disproportionately bearing health risks, they have also faced greater economic impact, as frontline workers are more vulnerable to unemployment caused by COVID-19.

Five million fewer Americans have jobs than they did four years ago, with more layoffs in process. Last spring’s financial stimulus deferred many layoffs with financial incentives, but many employers now face the reality that consumer demand will be slow to return, forcing them to address reduced revenues, lost profits and even financial solvency.

In 1944 Congress passed the G.I. Bill, which provided returning World War II veterans with education, financial assistance and health care. To overcome the consequences of COVID-19, America needs a similarly bold initiative to help frontline employees.

Here are five proposals to support these workers and value them the way they deserve to be valued.

Reskill the workforce

As technology accelerates the transformation of many job functions, the skills required for frontline workers are changing dramatically. Without new skills, they risk becoming obsolete and being laid off and replaced by skilled younger workers. To avoid this unattractive outcome, companies, government organizations, educational institutions, and philanthropic organizations need to join forces to reskill American workers, focusing on digital and computer capabilities. As they gain greater skills, workers can create more value, securing greater salaries and advancement on more lucrative career paths.

Create new jobs

Instead of cash payments, the next government stimulus should focus on creating new jobs through an infrastructure bill and incentives for conversion to renewable energy. It is well known that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and not competitive globally, but past administrations have failed to deliver on their promises. Now is the perfect time for a multiyear infrastructure program. In addition, the best way to accelerate the change to renewable energy is by placing a tax on carbon emissions while incentivizing renewable sources. These changes will create millions of new jobs for frontline workers and address the climate crisis.

Institute living wages

Can anyone live on $7.25 per hour, or $15,000 per year? No wonder so many minimum-wage workers hold two or three jobs or engage in the gig economy as Uber drivers. Many of these jobs do not offer health care benefits, leaving millions who cannot afford health insurance. Since Congress last raised the minimum wage, cumulative inflation has reduced its buying power by 20%.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, as many municipalities and companies like Amazon and Costco have done, will begin to address America’s growing income inequality. Small-business owners will complain these increases could put them out of business just as they are trying to recover. Yet if every company must pay the same, those companies will still be on par competitively.

Reconceptualize organizations and culture

Why do organization charts show executives on top and frontline workers on the bottom? After all, frontline employees are directly serving customers, the most important constituency. The issue here goes deeper than the orientation of organization charts. Many corporate staff people and middle managers mistakenly believe their job is to control frontline people through rules and numbers. If we flip the organization on its head, their roles become supporting the front line, making it easier for them to do their jobs with sound numbers, information systems, and training. As a practical step, CEOs and their executive teams should spend at least two days per quarter doing frontline tasks side by side with workers, gaining empathy and insight into how they work.

Remove layers from organizations

Today’s large corporations have far too many layers between the CEO and frontline workers, which isolates executives from the marketplace and their employees. A recent Harvard Business School study showed that CEOs spend only 3% of their time with customers. Rather than being in the marketplace and hearing directly from customers, many executives spend time in meetings listening to middle managers interpret what is going on in the marketplace from data analysis. They create bureaucracy with complex approval systems that remove authority from the front line, in favor of inflexible rules-based systems that are not customer-friendly. Instead, they should put decision-making at the point of impact, enabling people with the greatest customer contact to make decisions in real time.

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 provides the opportunity for organizations to rethink the role of their frontline workers and the organization structure on top of them. Companies should use this moment to invest in their frontline workers and restructure their organizations to empower them. Increasing compensation, training, and benefits has real upside: It will improve customer satisfaction, reduce costly turnover, provide long-term career tracks for the most valuable employees, reduce income inequality, and make decision-making more streamlined and flexible to respond to changing customer needs.

The time to act is now.

Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He is the author of Discover Your True North.