An Emerging Landscape of Skills for All

To create a learning infrastructure that enables a more equitable workforce, corporations must take bold steps.

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The Future of Workplace Learning

To meet the needs of a rapidly evolving, skill-centered economy, organizations must shift their thinking when it comes to workplace learning. This MIT SMR Executive Guide explores how business leaders across functions can work together to make transformational learning a reality.

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Escalator of Continued Business Learning

Developing the skills and infrastructure for lifelong learning was at the top of my agenda before the pandemic. But as the general economic fallout from the pandemic and the impact on jobs and job displacement become clearer, the issues of upskilling and reskilling are also moving up the agenda for corporations and executives across the world. Governments play a role here, as we have seen in the case of Singapore, which offers a model for government-sponsored initiatives aimed at promoting skill development and lifelong learning. But the corporate role is vital. That’s in part because the experience of work itself is a major developer of skills, and corporations have an intimate view of skill requirements. In some cases, they also have a finely honed way of developing skills. Indeed, in a recent survey, 94% of business leaders said they expect their employees to pick up new skills on the job (which represents a sharp uptick from 65% in 2018).

But a particular nuance of this skills challenge is shifting the balance of initiatives and resources to where they are needed most. Right now, skill development programs are well established for highly skilled jobs. That’s not enough — the significantly larger proportion of often lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs requires more skill development. These jobs are typically the most vulnerable to automation and are where churn will most likely take place. It’s no surprise executives estimate that, on average, roughly 40% of workers will require reskilling of six months or less. Importantly, for those in lower-paid work, the transitions associated with this churn are particularly hard, since they require access to often scarce resources — time, money, and attention.

As a humanistic psychologist, I start from the position that most adults (whatever their pay grade) are motivated to learn and develop skills in order to build resilience against current challenges and guard against future shocks. They do this by investing time and resources (sometimes significant amounts of both) to upskill in their current job — or, better still, they reskill in the hope and anticipation of securing a better, higher-value job. As Matt Sigelman, CEO of the labor market platform company Burning Glass Technologies, recently remarked to me, “People have an irrepressible desire and ability to move up.”

This human drive will turn out to be crucial in the face of the massive job churn ahead. So the real motivational kicker for corporate executives is to create a learning infrastructure that enables and encourages people to harness this innate human drive.

To do so, executives have to take three actions: (1) Make developmental pathways visible so that employees know how to connect to higher-paid work; (2) leverage the new learning habits by making low-cost training available at scale; and (3) more broadly invest in skill development opportunities not only for current employees but for the wider supply chains and communities as well.

Harness Visible ‘Escalators of Mobility’

For many people, on-the-job experience itself is what helps them develop new skills. But it turns out that jobs don’t all have equivalent skill development potential. Some are like escalators — the experience of being on them moves you up. But others are cul-de-sacs — dead-end jobs that take you nowhere. The challenge for workers is distinguishing the cul-de-sacs from the escalators.

And while upward mobility may be more widely available or highly visible in certain career paths (such as professional jobs), that’s not always the case in lower-skilled jobs, where escalators can be particularly crucial. To understand this better, a recent study traced the trajectories of 100,000 U.S. employees and, encouragingly, found that half of them moved up into higher-wage jobs. These “gateway” jobs to the escalators included customer service, sales, advertising sales, computer support, vocational nursing, welding, and machining. These are midlevel jobs on a journey to a higher-paid destination.

What these gateway jobs often have in common is the development of foundational skills. These are often “human skills,” such as listening, communication, empathy, judgment, and decision-making. It turns out these skills play a key role in unlocking the value of technical skills. Indeed, without them, individuals cannot entirely utilize their technical skills. And part of the importance of these foundational skills is that, unlike technical skills, which often have a short shelf life, they are valuable over the course of a lifetime of work.

It is possible for companies to both identify and utilize these escalators and gateway jobs. Take IBM, which has developed and now deploys a chatbot called Myca (short for My Career Advisor). This uses a range of real-time internal and external data (including data from IBM’s HR system, data from internal opportunity boards, and external labor market data) to converse with employees about their current and future skill development. Using natural language technology, Myca describes employees’ current skill profile, shows them gateway jobs, and highlights how the skills gap can be filled. Or take telecommunications company AT&T, which is investing more than $200 million annually to develop a suite of training programs for higher-value digital jobs — particularly those with hard-to-source, in-demand skill sets. When they followed the trajectory of participants, they discovered more than 4,200 career pivots. Importantly, rather than going outside for skills, AT&T was able to fill more than 70% of open jobs with internal people who had upskilled.

There are actions that companies and executives can take now: Focus on the trajectories of lower-paid roles, and identify those gateway jobs that provide escalators to better, higher-paid work. Leaders can also target development spending on those foundational skills that will unlock technical skills, and on hard-to-source, in-demand skill sets.

Invest In Leveraging New Learning Habits

For those roughly half of employees who moved up in the study of 100,000 U.S. workers, escalator jobs really helped make a difference. But that was rarely enough. A key factor that separated those who moved up from those who didn’t was some level of extra skills training — either provided by their companies or undertaken by the workers themselves. How do we make such skills training available in a low-cost, scalable way to more individuals who need it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up an opportunity in this regard as people have become more familiar with online learning delivery and virtual collaboration with work colleagues. This experience has also sparked growth in the digital learning market and secured wider acceptance — both at the corporate and individual levels — of the value of online skills training.

I spoke with Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of the online education platform Coursera, at the beginning of the pandemic about how needs were changing. Even then, he saw that corporate-sponsored learning was growing fast, along with individually sponsored learning. The Coursera platform was amplifying learning new skills and creating greater skill elasticity. At that point, enrollment in China, Japan, and Italy was already up by over 300% — with courses on public health dominating. Since then, it’s become ever clearer to Maggioncalda and his team that new learning habits are being created amid a new way of working. As he put it, “There has been an amazing amount of sharing and a new spirit of accepting new things.” People across the world are embracing digital and being more innovative, creative, and collaborative.

There is an opportunity now to leverage new learning habits to really boost the skills agenda.

Partner in Building the Whole Skills Ecosystem

Governments like Singapore’s are able to look across the whole skills ecosystem of a region or country in order to understand the dynamics of the labor market and know where best to invest in supporting job transitions and training. Inevitably, many executives take a more insular approach — by focusing solely on their own company and their current employees. I believe this corporate insular view is a lost opportunity, particularly in countries where governments are not executing a coordinated skills development strategy. This insular view can also work against the long-term success of the company. In a tight labor market for skills, the pipeline of future employees (and consumers) is as important to companies as their current employees. And when we take a wider look at this opportunity issue, there is the question of corporate social responsibility. Billions of people are in need of better, higher-paying, higher-mobility jobs. Companies can play a crucial role in looking beyond their own boundaries and current employees to the wider community in order to confront this desperate need on a global scale.

It was this wider perspective that led the executive team at Microsoft to launch a global initiative in early 2020 aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide. To do that, leaders made use of their own resources while building new partnerships. Internally, they worked with job posting data from LinkedIn and the skills profiles emerging from millions of developers on code-sharing platform GitHub to build live data streams. This information created a deep understanding at a granular level of in-demand jobs while profiling and clustering skill sets. The result was a navigation system for people motivated to upskill. Then, to support those on the escalator, the team at Microsoft worked with a range of suppliers to provide free access to learning modules, low-cost skill certifications, and free job-seeking tools. In addition, Microsoft donated $20 million in cash grants to support nonprofit organizations worldwide that are committed to supporting upskilling.

As we move forward from the pandemic and contend with an economic recession, the issue taking center stage will be how workers — across the whole pay and skills continuum — are motivated and able to learn new skills. There is an opportunity now to leverage new learning habits to really boost the skills agenda. To make this happen, executives need to encourage employees by mapping those escalator jobs that could make a real difference, and make significant investments in providing resources that support those who are motivated to learn.


The Future of Workplace Learning

To meet the needs of a rapidly evolving, skill-centered economy, organizations must shift their thinking when it comes to workplace learning. This MIT SMR Executive Guide explores how business leaders across functions can work together to make transformational learning a reality.

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Comment (1)
Jadson C. Santos
The so-called Lifelong Learning has never been more important and valued. Today, we have a more democratic learning system. Platforms such as Coursera and Edx bring knowledge from major universities and organizations to any worker's day-to-day (with the unique need for a computer or smartphone and access to the internet). 
We are living in challenging and also in great opportunities times.