Automation and other forces have displaced many workers from manufacturing and other types of manual jobs. In response, some companies have created programs to retrain workers for jobs that demand substantially different attitudes and skills.

Today, new skills are needed for increasingly technical jobs. The question is: What is needed to re-train people to make them good candidates for these different jobs?

First, everyone — workers, educators and employers — must believe that this retraining can be achieved. If everyone expects good things to happen, they will. On the other hand, if anyone doubts the retraining is possible, those doubts will undermine success. Certainly, the newest neuroscience of learning indicates that anyone can learn anything if he or she is driven by a compelling reason for making the change (though that does not mean it is easy).

Retraining must start with the workers themselves. These workers must want to be re-trained, because training will not work if they resist change. More specifically, workers must believe:

  • The new attitudes and skills will lead to something good for themselves – personally and for their families
  • The new opportunities in the market are worth the effort
  • That the retraining will actually work

In the terminology of the neuroscience of learning, they must have a compelling purpose for making the change and a clear and specific path to mastery. Then, they will believe the results are worth the effort and that the effort will succeed.

Second, the training programs need to actually work. Traditional instructor-led or online training programs won’t work; focusing on rote approaches to building skills misses the underlying cultural differences of certain types of “manual” work versus more “intellectual” work. Attitudes toward work, independence, collaboration, problem-solving and a host of other capabilities are often more important for success in this area of the economy than any specific skills, though specific skills need to be developed, too.

Retraining programs need to:

  • Focus on building purpose and support for the path to mastery
  • Have a strong, achievable definition of mastery so the participants know what is required
  • Include realistic, achievable, interesting learning exercises that enable participants to develop the needed attitudes and skills
  • Provide the social support of a coach and peers to help them through the barriers they will encounter

Retraining programs must be much more than training. They must be the best of true educational experiences. This change is itself a cultural shift. There is a huge difference between someone attending training and someone learning how to succeed in a very different work and cultural environment.

Many people may be skeptical that this is possible. Probably the most skeptical people will be the workers themselves. But there is cause for optimism. Most of the research on worker engagement shows that workers in virtually every profession are actually motivated by trying to achieve a higher purpose. This is true for people working in fast food, call centers, manufacturing and many other jobs not normally thought of as purpose-driven. Humans naturally gravitate to trying to achieve a compelling purpose, if they are given the opportunity to work that way.

The second reason for optimism is the science of learning. We now know how to economically provide these workers with the type of learning experiences that will change their lives. These methodologies are so effective and consistent that 90 to 95 percent of the people going through science-based retraining programs demonstrate new attitudes and skills both immediately after the program and indefinitely thereafter.

The data show that anyone can be educated into a new profession as long as they proactively and strongly embrace the opportunity to realize their higher purpose. We are all much better off if everyone has meaningful, well-compensated work, even if it is different from what people did in the past.