Education, Disrupted

Confronting sizable skills gaps, companies have stopped waiting for higher education to meet their rapidly shifting competitive needs.

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Employers are confronting sizable skills gaps in all parts of their operations, at all levels, and they can’t seem to fill them by simply hiring new people. In today’s tight labor market, there are about 7 million open jobs for which companies are struggling to find qualified candidates because applicants routinely lack the digital and soft skills required to succeed. In the face of rapid technological changes like automation and artificial intelligence, helping employees keep pace is challenging. And companies are wrestling with how to retain top talent — a critical differentiator in a hypercompetitive environment. No wonder a staggering 77% of chief executives report that a scarcity of people with key skills is the biggest threat to their businesses, according to PwC’s 2017 CEO survey.

As a result, companies can no longer afford to wait for the traditional “system” to supply the workers they hope will help shape their future — the need is too acute and too urgent, particularly given that many higher-education institutions remain in denial. We must change how we educate both traditional college-age students and adult learners.

Last year, when 4,500 people gathered at the ASU GSV Summit in San Diego to discuss innovation both in education and in talent development writ large, it was clear that the companies in attendance were eager to find alternative paths. At this conference, political leaders and policymakers join CEOs and VCs to discuss the imperative of investing in human capital. Entrepreneurs in attendance work fervently to sell their wares or make deals, the likes of which have fueled a sharp increase in global mergers and acquisitions of education and talent development companies, up in total value from $4 billion in 2008 to $40 billion in 2018.1 Executives from leading companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Workday, and attend to share ideas and learn about new ways forward.

The annual event provides a regular check-in on the state of corporate learning. In part, it’s meant to coax companies to focus their efforts, because there’s still a fundamental mismatch between how much they say they want to strategically invest in their current and future employees and what they actually do.



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1. “Fast Facts,” ASU GSV Summit, accessed Nov. 18, 2019,

2. M. Weise, “Re-skilling Me Softly: Why Are American Companies So Bad at Re-skilling?” Quartz, Oct. 1, 2019. See also “17th Annual Global CEO Survey,” PwC, 2019.

3. C. Westfall, “New Survey: Nearly Half of Workers Unsatisfied With Learning and Development Programs,” Forbes, Oct. 8, 2019,

4. P. Fain, “Amazon to Spend $700 Million on Training, Mostly Outside College,” Inside Higher Ed, July 12, 2019,

5. D. Lederman, “Online Education Ascends,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 7, 2018,

6. A. Dulin Salisbury, “As Pressure to Upskill Grows, Five Models Emerge,” Forbes, Oct. 28, 2019,

7. S. Caminiti, “AT&T’s $1 Billion Gambit: Retraining Nearly Half Its Workforce for Jobs of the Future,” CNBC, March 13, 2018,

8. M.E. Echols, “ROI on Human Capital Investment,” 2nd ed. (Littleton, Massachusetts: Tapestry Press, 2005).

9. M. Murphy, “Why New Hires Fail (Emotional Intelligence vs. Skills),” Leadership IQ, June 22, 2015,

10. “Nearly Three in Four Employers Affected by a Bad Hire, According to a Recent CareerBuilder Survey,” CareerBuilder, Dec. 7, 2017,

11. S.A. Ambrose, M.W. Bridges, M. DiPietro, et al., “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching,” 1st ed. (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

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Comments (2)
Jaqueline Togneto
That makes me think even more about the concepts of Communities of Practice to leverage organizations' skills, expertise, experiences and relationship. We tend to think more and more about online, self paced training... but we usually forgot that training and learning are different... you can take a training with no real learning. We need to start thinking about the importance of learning by the practice and keep interlocking people in a social and professional network - that is very important to keep the organizational memory and ensure the community itself owns the knowledge, not only single individuals.
Andrew Webster
I wholeheartedly applaud the call for employers to recognize the value of learning.  There's an implication in a graded system, right the way up to PhD, that one's qualifications somehow are one's work.  In a VUCA world that is simply not possible.  In this world, part of real work must be learning.
I would have a reservation about online learning being the magic answer.  It's great, and a wonderful way to use technology, but it doesn't help to develop the core "soft skills" of human collaboration and communication.  In-person training, coaching, and teamwork are huge difference-makers.  Video conferencing is fantastic, video learning is fantastic, but given that humans evolved over tens of thousands of generations as social creatures, depending on each other for all aspects of life, we can't really expect one generation of e-learning to have the same impact.