Headlines are being dominated by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, and scientists and health experts are working to understand its potential impacts, and how to prevent and treat it.
But there already have been many lessons learned by Pasco County’s business community, in terms of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic — which began having widespread disruptions in March 2020, according to Hope Kennedy, president and CEO of the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.
Kennedy has a broad perspective on the issue because her chamber work involves large business operations, startup entrepreneurs, legislators, local organizations and business leaders.
In reflecting upon the impacts of the pandemic, Kennedy said beyond presenting challenges, it also has offered valuable lessons.
And, as she looks ahead to 2022, she’s optimistic about the opportunities that await.
Going back to the beginning of the pandemic, Kennedy said: “None of us was prepared for any of this that was coming.”
It has been challenging and particularly painful for enterprises that didn’t survive, she said.
But those who made it through, are emerging stronger, Kennedy said.
“We’re better business leaders. We are more in tune with our businesses,” the chamber executive said.
“What I saw most is that people were able to say: ‘OK, we’ve been doing this forever and ever. We can’t do it that way. What can we do to still deliver our product, our goods, our services in a more efficient manner?’”
The companies and organizations that were able to key in on their essential mission and to adapt their operations have become more focused and efficient, she said.
The chamber, itself, was forced to change. It went to remote operations within hours.
“We eliminated some of our programs,” she said, which also is true for many businesses.
Now, as businesses look to the future, they need to ask: “What are the barriers? What are things that are stopping us?”
For instance, workforce and affordable housings are big issues.
“There are some barriers to entry of people in the workforce. There’s barriers to entry in affordable housing,” Kennedy said.
“So, what can we do to have conversations, to just see what those barriers are — because chances are, we can get around them,” she said.
The silver lining from the pandemic, Kennedy said, is that it offered time for introspection, and “it has opened our (way of) thinking.”
Attracting employees and training those who want to reenter the workforce are topics of conversation across the community, Kennedy said.
There’s no silver bullet to ever-evolving workforce issues, but the chamber plans to lead conversations on the issue, she said.
“It is a huge focus at the chamber for the coming year, to make sure we understand the needs of the businesses and what they are looking for,” Kennedy said.
“Pasco-Hernando Career Source is going to be a huge help to the business community, in these coming years. One, identifying the need of the workforce and two, connecting the training,” she said.
“There is a (national) program called Second-Chance Hiring, and it’s for folks who have been formerly incarcerated, and/or have a felony on their record,” she said. “I want in on it.”
People with a criminal record are often automatically knocked out of consideration for job openings, Kennedy said.
“There’s an opportunity for us, as business leaders, to come up with a system,” she said, aimed at helping employers fill jobs and giving applicants a chance to work — who want to work, but are barred from entry.
She pointed to Walmart as an employer who gives applicants a second chance, on a case-by-case basis.
Over the course of her career in chamber work, Kennedy said she’s faced an assortment of difficult times. She dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, while she was working in Pensacola. Then came the Great Recession, then the BP oil spill.
When COVID hit, reactions varied from place to place, Kennedy.
Some chambers across the country ceased operations because they were not technically ready to make the shift to virtual operations,” she said.
“Some communities crumbled. Ours came together.
“Our community rallied.
“We rallied around each other. We had takeout Tuesdays,” she said.
“We did a ‘We are Open’ campaign,” she said, using social media to spread the word.
She said COVID reinforced a lesson she grasped in other turbulent times.
“I learned that in every single adversity, there is a solution.
“There absolutely is a solution.
“It might not be right in front of you.
“You can’t lose sight of your ultimate goal,” Kennedy said.
Published January 05, 2022