Last summer, President Donald Trump signed an executive order “aimed at spurring new investments for training Americans to help them secure jobs,” and creating a National Council for the American Worker, according to the Wall Street Journal. In response, more than 15 companies and associations, including IBM, FedEx, General Motors, Microsoft, Walmart and Lockheed Martin “pledged to hire or train more than 3.8 million people over the next five years.”

A few months ago, Wilbur Ross, secretary of the Department of Commerce, and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, announced the Workforce Advisory Board. The board is made up of 25 leaders, including the chief executives of Apple, Lockheed Martin and Walmart, who will work with the National Council for the American Worker to “ensure inclusive growth” and help Americans “have the skills and opportunity to secure good paying jobs and successfully navigate technological disruptions and the rapidly changing nature of work,” according to a statement by Ivanka Trump.

How does this administration’s focus on workforce development – along with other economic trends – impact companies? Emily Bouck West, deputy executive director for Higher Learning Advocates; Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer at D2L; and Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine, Inc. weigh in.

What Is Workforce Development?

The term “workforce development” generally refers to the education, training and development of a skilled workforce, often at the local or national level. Cheney defines it as “a broad term encompassing the main activities and supportive services necessary to prepare workers for access into, progression upward, and continued advancement in jobs and careers,” including “education, training, job coaching, dependent care, transportation [and] income support.”

“From a policy perspective,” says West, “our workforce development system is a constellation of interconnected federal, state and local systems – including career and technical programs, community colleges, workforce boards, career centers – that support upskilling and reskilling.” She adds, “For a long time, workforce development has been a siloed conversation disconnected from higher education. But students – learners – don’t see it that way: They participate in both systems, sometimes at the same time. Stakeholders and policymakers should work to build stronger linkages between these two systems and enable students to participate and gain the skills they need with an exit ticket to their next career step.”

“Workforce development has evolved and become more than just pre-employment preparation. Today’s employees will change jobs 12 to 15 times on average, often in different industries, so simply training someone for their first job won’t suffice,” says Auger. “Every vertical and role will evolve as we move into the workplace of the future, and learning is now a continuous journey for all employees throughout their career lifetime.”

U.S. Workforce Development Policy

Auger believes that the current administration’s “focus on work-based learning opportunities and promotion of alternative pathways in education is overall positive.” While companies must implement newer, faster models of learning, the government also “has a significant role in supporting workforce development by acting as a convener between higher education and employers and enabling innovation through policy. Critically though, developing and maintaining a world-class education and workforce development system requires investment. Through investment, we can increase the capacity of our workforce pipeline and make it more accessible to every worker.”

“To a certain extent,” says West, the administration’s “efforts are reflective of the political popularity around workforce development and training in the electorate.” For example, initiatives like the Executive Order on Expanding Apprenticeships in America and the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion at the Department of Labor reflect the fact that ‘88 percent of Americans view apprenticeships favorably.’ The Department of Education has also taken on steps to prioritize expanding access to alternative providers and work-based learning. Alternative providers, like coding bootcamps and other short-term training credentials, continue to pop up in messaging and priorities from the Administration.”

Cheney points out the importance of understanding the many credentials offered in the market and says, “The current administration, similar to the previous administration, has been supportive of improving credential transparency, and ensuring that more accurate and reliable information on the cost and value of credentials is available to prospective students, job-seekers, employers and government alike.”

Workforce Development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

With our current technological revolution, which World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab famously described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how is workforce development changing?

“It hasn’t yet,” says Cheney, “and the exact degree of change is very unclear still. If we accept that workforce development is about both the education and training necessary, in addition to the financial obligations, dependent care, and transportation requirements facing students and workers, then the people engaged in workforce development now aren’t much different than 10, 25, 50 years ago. And likely won’t be much different than 20 years from now.” However, artificial intelligence is “virtually eras[ing] the friction and time lag in translating the actual needs of a job, or the skills needed to operate a piece of equipment, from the business to the provider. In and of itself, this is an important advancement, but doesn’t address all the other human aspects of effective workforce development. Maximizing these efficiencies will be real advancements in workforce development.”

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution has caused many technical skills to go extinct and increased the demand for soft, durable skills,” says Auger. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution has also led to a positive disruption in education. Learners are no longer limited by geography and are now enabled to access courses, content, coaching and information from leading experts around the world.”

He points to the rise of the gig economy as another way the workforce is changing. “We expect to see more companies turn to the higher education system as a partner for employee development, and [they] will require fast, accessible courses aligned with the labor market at a reasonable cost. Employers would then be able to focus their own training programs on more company-specific items and ongoing soft skills development.”

“The failure of federal worker retraining programs has long been a concern for policymakers and others focused on helping displaced workers reskill for new careers,” says West. But she believes new policies may be different. “Because of the disruption of traditional career paths and a labor market in flux, there’s a new openness to the broad spectrum of learning opportunities that exist beyond high school.” Furthermore, when people lose jobs, “the common thinking is for them to switch careers or move to another location to find a job in their existing career. Some such workers may consider themselves ‘too old’ to go back to school or [are] intimidated at the prospect of paying for college. The federal government could play a really constructive role by supporting the full spectrum of high-quality options available for today’s students and workers.”

What’s Next?

“The issues will continue to evolve, and we’ll continue to try to find the best ways to meet people at the intersection of education, training and work, which is an ever-moving target given the inevitable evolutions in technologies, skill requirements, social policy, funding and financing, and economic developments,” says Cheney. He adds that Credential Engine is working to meet those challenges by “providing a level playing field of credential data” so that “systems of education, training and work can finally talk to and with each other, instead of just at each other.”

Similarly, says West, “Conversations around workforce development will continue to integrate and intersect with the higher education sector. The train has left the station on this issue, and policymakers will only become more focused on it … More and more higher education stakeholders are seeing the value in promoting a system where higher education and workforce systems function in tandem.”

Finally, Auger makes a case for the increasing importance of soft skills, which will “become a more explicit component of higher education curricul[a] and employer training offerings. At the same time, we expect new models of learning to expand in the higher education system to facilitate the continual technical skills training that individuals will require throughout their careers as those skills become outdated by technology and automation.”

Certainly, it’s an interesting time to work in workforce development. What initiatives are you planning at your company in the face of policy changes and technological trends? Let us know by tweeting us @TrainingIndustr.