Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough talked to SE2 Content Director Bazi Kanani about how the public and private sectors can collaborate to drive pandemic recovery – from job training to mental health support to closing opportunity gaps. Kelly said public-private initiatives can draw on our nation’s history of resilience. Before joining the chamber, Kelly worked at City Hall as mayoral chief of staff and human resources director.
We are nearing spring and there’s some hope that the end of this pandemic is near. It has taken a toll on businesses and employees in many ways. How do you think that the public and private sector can work together to accelerate the recovery from this pandemic and move us forward?
The public and private sectors working together is something we have done successfully for decades and it’s been key to a lot of our economic success. It’ll be no different as we try to come out of this pandemic – working together to understand what’s good policy to protect employees and customers, and working together to figure out how you get people back to work safely. We’ve learned a lot. Public health has advised us wonderfully through this pandemic, as they were learning. That will help us get back to work and successfully protect everybody while we do it.
Can you envision a return to something we would call normal and, and what will that require to get there?
I love this question of when do we get back to normal. I think there’s a lot of energy and desire to get back. We miss each other. First, of course, is making sure we protect everybody’s health as we continue to move back to being together. As we’re vaccinating older adults, and those who are most vulnerable and at greatest risk, you’re seeing public health officials say we can lighten up and start to put people back in environments where you can work together and be together.
But there’s a second hurdle, Bazi, and I think that is people feeling comfortable. We’re starting to see, along with public health lifting the restrictions, that people also are feeling pretty comfortable.
And then, of course, the last one is, we were reminded, washing your hands, creating a little space between you and others, not hugging every time I see someone. Those are things that can help protect us from much more than just COVID in the long run.
There is more federal stimulus funding coming to help with the recovery. How do you think our region can best use that funding in the short and long run?
There are industries that have been decimated by this pandemic. And when I say that, I mean that’s jobs, that’s people’s lives, and they definitely need this direct assistance that is coming their way. Both the employer needs it and the employees. The assistance can help employers keep employees on payroll. For those who’ve lost their jobs, it can help those employees navigate unemployment. This isn’t a solution by any means, but it can help and it’s critically important.
No government program replaces what a good job does for a family, so the most important thing is to help people get back to work. And any of the stimulus that does that is very helpful.
One of the things the pandemic has highlighted is persistent and even growing inequalities. What are some of your thoughts on what could be done across the community to promote equity, from health to education to economic opportunity?
Four years ago, we were identified by US News and World Report as the number one economy in the nation. And this is really great news, because this is my job. But, when we were first recognized that way, we started to look into some of the disparities we saw in our economy. And what we realized is not everybody was accessing those opportunities at the same rate. And so, we set out to change that then. Indeed, 2020 highlighted what we were already tracking and, frankly, developing strategies around: How do you impact those disparities? We primarily focused on race, ethnicity and gender.
I’ll use women as an example. Women coming out of the workplace — many are describing it as choice, that the woman had an option. But the truth is if you talk to many working women, what they’ll tell you is they didn’t feel they had any choice but to leave the workplace during the pandemic because of the pressures and challenges, or they were overrepresented in those direct service jobs that were lost during the pandemic. We need to double down and use this moment to really use stimulus dollars and private dollars to ensure we bring people back into opportunity.
Some of the disruptive economic shifts that we’ve seen in this pandemic are likely to be permanent. And that will mean many people will have to retool their skills. How do you think public and private sectors can work to support those workers in this transition?
This is a great example of when you put those two together, you can really have an impact. A wonderful example is for the public sector to create incentives for employers to train their employees, to utilize apprenticeship programs, where kids in high school start working in career opportunities to learn about them.
CareerWise would be a wonderful example of a program that does this. Or programs like those offered at Emily Griffith Opportunity School that are really focused on building career skills. There’s a program called Skill Advance Colorado job training grant. It’s part of a state program and it incentivizes employers to equip employees with transferable job skills. It’s almost like you think of every employee as their own little economic engine. We diversify our economy. The same is true for an employee. If we can diversify your skills and give you a range of skills, then if something happens in the industry you’re in, you’re easily able to navigate to another opportunity. That’s exactly how we should be thinking today.
I want to give you one other example that we’re working on right now with our state and it’s called Fair Chance hiring. This is all about incentivizing employees to consider candidates who maybe have had a history with our criminal justice system. But as they come out of that system, there are a number of barriers to re-employ and invite people into our workforces. This is a great opportunity to rethink some of the restrictions we have put on people being able to get to work.
Let’s talk about the younger generation that will be reaching adulthood, going into those first jobs in these coming years, as we as a society are coming out of this unprecedented pandemic. What do you think that we can do to give that younger generation their best start, their best opportunity to have good jobs, to provide for their families, and to make a positive contribution to the community?
I have two 20 year olds, so this is really going to be hard for them to hear. And my guess is it may be hard for others who are just trying to navigate in this environment, the start of their careers. But the truth is many previous generations in the world’s history have suffered through terrible moments in time. You can think about other pandemics, world wars, holocausts, genocides. No matter which country you’re in, and particularly in the United States, we’ve seen great resilience afterward. And I expect nothing less from today’s generation.
That doesn’t make what they’re going through easier. But I often think about some of the greatest hardships — when people share those with us from their own lives. What they did was make a choice: I’m going to use this hardship to learn something and to position myself and to become stronger. And I think this is where we, as a community, have to ensure we’re providing the support to ensure that our young people can use this moment to learn and grow and be stronger as they build their careers.
Certainly, resilience is an important skill for young people. We’ve also heard a lot about the emotional strain that this pandemic has had on Coloradans of all ages. What more can businesses and government do to support Coloradans in this area, in mental health?
Just asking the question I think is helpful, because we have to speak about it. I still believe the greatest challenge in addressing our emotional well-being and the strain that we’re feeling mentally is the stigma associated with it. We know that more people have access to mental health supports through their health care providers. But what we still have to overcome is the recognition that all of us are impacted by isolation and separation. I think just talking about it, acknowledging it — this is where I think true leadership is sharing honestly that we all need help sometimes, and this is one of those times for many of us.