Learning is a key step in human advancement and, when done right, improves the collective whole of any individual, institution or business. What we learn from family, friends and institutions congeals into an evolving framework that comprises our individual selves, which constantly simmer in a gumbo of complex and deepening morals and values.

Learning is cerebral. It’s filtered through our brains, which process thought, imagination, feelings and memories to form unique relationships that reveal things as small and amazing as new discoveries about ourselves or as intimidating as our purpose in a seemingly endless and ever-expanding universe.

If you can accept this truth about learning, the next thing to accept is that learning is not, nor has it ever been, limited to a classroom. To live is to survive. To survive is to learn. To learn is to reinvent, evolve and apply — and repeat.

The Future Has Arrived, and It Just Slapped Our Face

We are living and working amid a global transformation. Institutions and organizations can either survive through evolution or they can fight it, desperate to maintain an idealistic past that never existed. These transformations are both small and large, and they are occurring with greater frequency at every level.

Two current issues have accelerated change and will have dramatic impacts on the next decade of learning: COVID-19 and social justice. In just a few short months, a pandemic has forced us into conversations regarding what a classroom should be. And, in the wake of George Floyd’s and others’ deaths, thousands of protestors have begun asking questions about systemic injustices that we can trace back directly to education and the greater need for equal representation and affordable learning opportunities.

It is time for a reinvention.

The Response

On June 26, 2020, U.S. president Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the federal government to assess applicants’ job skills rather than emphasizing college degrees. Private employers have been exploring similar approaches for a while now; companies such as Google, Tesla, Amazon and Hilton advocate that good work comes from an eagerness to learn and the practical applications of that learning, which can’t be found in the traditional educational model. The agile economy of the future needs to account for methods of learning and application that are not bound to the exorbitant price of college and the physical presence and time commitment a university requires.

Media company Protocol recently hosted a “Transformation of Work Summit,” where experts participated in discussions about employable skills, workforce training and how to initiate concrete progress now. U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware described her beliefs that we need to imbed workforce development into our way of life and then build onto it and that our recovery from the pandemic represents a significant opportunity. Matthew Sigelman, chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, spoke about skills gaps and said that the biggest gaps are in creativity, writing and research, and collaboration — skills that aren’t always taught in books. Furthermore, Maria Flynn, CEO and president of Jobs of the Future, said she believes we should move past the idea of four-year degrees. She spoke at length about how COVID has magnified inequities, including wage gaps.

It may be tempting to think that these trends suddenly emerged as a result of the pandemic, but the fact is, they were the underlying drivers of our record six million open jobs during our previous period of low unemployment. It is time for a reinvention.

How to Crack the Billion-dollar Egg

In this context, reinventing for a better future means organizations and employers must rethink how they evaluate candidates, using other methods to determine qualification. This process starts with rethinking your approach to job descriptions and which qualifications you list for a job — an approach called “right credentialing.”

Moving from the de facto standard of the degree, companies requiring a certain set of skills should offer workforce development programs and on-the-job training (OJT), aligned with company goals, with a clear vision for the future and how they plan to evolve and grow as technology and social structures evolve. Methods exist now to address these issues, including virtual instructor-led training (VILT), virtual learning labs, simulations, coaching or in-office training.

One example of this future of workforce development is Amazon’s Career Choice program, which focuses on upskilling its workers so they can build new skills within the company or pursue a future beyond Amazon, while incorporating continuing education into their daily workflow. The future doesn’t ask learners to choose between work and learning; it marries the two.

Enabling Flexible Lifelong Learning

With wages flatlining (or, in many cases, decreasing), universities and community colleges need to do a bit of soul-searching as they explore solutions to their pricing structures and think about offering frameworks that might begin to mitigate the exclusion of middle- and low-income individuals from higher education.

If businesses are approaching lifelong learning in a different way, shouldn’t colleges? Are they offering off-campus, non-traditional learning programs? Are they adequately leveraging their networks and connections? Are they investigating and implementing the most innovative and engaging solutions possible? Employers have the opportunity to drive innovation with academic institutions through partnerships, especially working with third-party innovators who can manage those partnerships at scale.

In the Transformation of Work Summit, Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker, CEO and president of Colorado State University-Global, spoke about the volume of 30-somethings flocking to online higher education, because it fits their needs. The economy is pressuring people into multiple cash streams, and, as a result, they need more flexibility in their learning. This flexibility enables learners to create schedules that fit themselves and their families.

A post on Deloitte’s Capital H blog titled “Democratizing Tuition ‘Reimbursement’” notes that many organizations are not offering the full spectrum of learning opportunities to their people. Some offer tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement to employees as a reward, giving them the opportunity to seek a higher education. Companies like AT&T, Chipotle, Disney, Home Depot and other employers already offer these programs, but many are not managed strategically.

For example, in tuition reimbursement programs, employees have to pay for their educational expenses up front and are reimbursed later, assuming they are eligible. If organizations introduced more assistance programs or thought more creatively about their own internal educational ecosystems, they could more efficiently close the knowledge gap and create new opportunities for employees.

In the Training Industry Magazine article “A New Talent Compact: Striking a New Deal with Your Employees,” Sean Stowers, CPTM, wrote that by 2020, 60% of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, but “over 70 million individuals in the U.S. [have] either some college education but no degree [or are] without a high school diploma.”

How does a traditional four-year degree even begin to address the agility required in this environment? More disturbingly, what are we saying to people who need to prepare for the same future as the rest of us but, through a variety of reasons, must navigate it a different way?

Our current system has not even begun to address these questions. The difference between now and 10 years ago is that we are all on the clock now. As organizations, as individuals and as a collective species, how do we reinvent this system?

Our Dream

As the world and people who live on it continue to change, we need not only to change with them but to lead them, by learning, improving and reinventing. Our goal should be to provide and protect equity and opportunity for every person. To make this dream a reality, we need to be brave and create change — systematically and individually. We can start by reconsidering what we know and what we want to become.

Education and learning are how we can participate in that reinvention as passionate citizens and considerate human beings in a world hurtling through a great void. Are you ready?