As the skills employees need to support business operations are evolving in the digital economy, and as there are more open positions in the U.S. than there are people to fill them, nearly all industries are impacted by skills gaps. Further, the problem seems to be growing: Future Workplace found that the U.S. skills gap widened by 12% from 2018 to 2019, with 52% of human resources (HR) leaders surveyed reporting a skills gap in 2018 and 64% reporting a skills gap in 2019.

The skills gap is especially present in health care. Jobs in this industry are expected to grow three times the rate of the rest of the economy during the next decade. The demand for home health aides and other direct care workers, such as certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and personal care aides, are especially seeing significant growth: PHI projects nearly 8 million direct care job openings by 2026.

At the same time, there are numerous workers, typically in low-wage industries such as hospitality and retail, whose jobs are at risk of being displaced as automation, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), advances. The benefits of training these workers for in-demand health care roles are twofold: putting workers at risk of displacement on more sustainable career paths and filling open health care roles.

Chris Hedrick, co-founder and CEO of NextStep, says, “I think that it’s our responsibility as society to help people that are being displaced through no fault of their own, just through changes in technology and the overall economy.” Rather than leaving these workers to fend for themselves, Hedrick says, “It’s a whole lot better to give somebody the skills they need to have a good job and the start to a successful career.”

NextStep’s mobile health care training platform seeks to “reduce the friction” between employers, which are struggling to find candidates for in-demand health care roles, and learners, whose jobs may be automated away in the future. “What we’re trying to do at NextStep is to bridge that gap by providing a platform and content that is easily used and easily accessible by people who are busy, maybe working two part-time jobs, maybe have kids, [and] allow them to learn most of what they need … to be successful at these jobs,” Hedrick explains.

A Little Help Goes a Long Way

Training for a new position can be challenging for anyone, but low-wage workers often face additional hurdles, such as juggling multiple part-time jobs, child and elder care responsibilities, and securing reliable transportation, that can disrupt the learning process. Training professionals can help ease these challenges by offering student and career support services and ensuring content is readily accessible.

For example, WorkAdvance, a workforce development model developed by nonprofit social policy research organization MDRC, includes fees for licenses, tools and uniforms; transportation vouchers; and referrals for housing and mental health and substance abuse assistance. The model was designed to “improve economic outcomes” for low-wage workers through training and placement into jobs across high-demand sectors that have “strong career pathways,” including health care, according to Kelsey Schaberg, an MDRC research associate and one of the WorkAvance project’s leaders.

A randomized controlled evaluation of four providers’ use of WorkAdvance found that the model improved wages at some sites. Across all four sites, participants were more likely to report that they developed new skills in their jobs and were offered opportunities for career advancement, Schaberg explains. She says the support services included in the model likely contributed to the high occupational skills training completion rates at all four providers.

Delivering content in a mobile-enabled format can also ease some of the challenges low-wage workers face when training for health care roles. For example, Penn Foster Healthcare Academy, which offers training and certificate programs for in-demand health care roles, uses a digital training model to make it “much more accessible” to learners, says Keri Dogan, senior vice president of vertical solutions and social impact at Penn Foster. “We have short-form content, so they can do 20 or 30 minutes on the train on their way home. They can do it at night after they put their kids to bed.” Making training accessible anywhere, anytime, allows learners to learn “at their own pace, on their own time,” she adds.

NextStep also follows a digital training model, offering short courses on specific skills through its mobile-enabled platform. “Most of the folks that we’re reaching out to, their only computing device is a cell phone,” Hedrick says. “So, you need to go where they are and make it convenient for them.”

When training low-wage workers for more sustainable career paths, it’s also important to offer career and coaching services. At Penn Foster, Dogan says, “We have coaches who will call out to learners when it looks like they’ve stalled. When they’re having trouble with certain content, we have an academic team that supports the learners when they need extra help or tutoring in other areas.”

At Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA), students are required to complete a full career readiness course, which includes a mock interview, resume assistance and other support. “We begin to work with them from a career services perspective before graduation,” says Brandi Yates, director of career services training at UMA. Each student also has a “career services advisor” to help him or her with everything from buying professional, low-cost interview attire to landing their first job post-graduation. “Our career services advisors work in a territory, so they’ll build relationships with employers in that area and will work with graduates in that area,” Yates says.

A Stepping Stone

Although some entry-level health care positions, like home health aides and other caregiving roles, don’t typically offer high wages, they do offer job security — and the opportunity for upward mobility — for people whose jobs are at risk of displacement. Becoming a home health aide or CNA often acts as a stepping stone for individuals looking to move into higher-level health care roles, like becoming a licensed practical nurse, which offer a significant salary increase. “What we’re helping to do, in the longer term, is move beyond the entry-level health care jobs and move up those steps to those that require not necessarily a degree but higher levels of skills and training,” Hedrick says.

By offering holistic support services and leveraging mobile learning for increased accessibility, learning and development (L&D) professionals can successfully train workers whose jobs are at risk of being displaced by automation — and broaden the health care talent pool. As for how automation and AI will impact the health care field in the future, Hedrick explains, “Absolutely, technology will play a part in supporting folks in long-term care and older folks as they age, but that’s not going to replace the human element that we’re training people for, and the skills we’re training people for, which are very hard to automate away — at least, for the foreseeable future.”