Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.
A year ago, the training and workforce landscape was defined by mega-trends that had taken on buzzword status. Employers, education providers and policymakers talked about the shrinking shelf life of skills, the tightening labor market, and the accelerating pace of technological change with a mix of anxious anticipation and enthusiasm.
What a difference a year makes. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the global economy, throwing markets into turmoil and leading to historic unemployment. A nationwide reckoning with systemic racism boiled over, leading policy elites and business leaders alike to begin rethinking legacy practices that too often perpetuate (or exacerbate) inequity. A tumultuous election will bring shifting policy priorities that will transform the education and training landscape.
But while some trends have flipped upside down, others have only accelerated. The pace of technological change isn’t any slower, and the future of work isn’t taking a pause to wait out the pandemic. Last year, we made five predictions for how the world of work would continue to evolve in 2020. Here, we take stock of those ideas and examine what will happen to them after an unexpected, unprecedented year.
1. Learning to Work Becomes Working to Learn
A year ago, we anticipated the continuation of a trend in which employers have become some of the most important brokers of education and training. Instead of going to school so you can find a job, more people are finding a job so they can go to school. That prediction came on the heels of a historic year for employer investment in skills training. In 2019, Amazon, IBM and PwC announced major initiatives to upskill workers — or, in some cases, prepare them for their next job. Walmart expanded its $1-per-day “Live Better U” program with a new focus on quickly growing fields like allied health.
We can expect this employer-provided education trend to continue in 2021. Companies’ desire for socially responsible practices will make it all the more important to offer skills as a benefit. A rapidly changing world of work will require more and more employers to rethink the “build vs buy” approach, as Josh Bersin writes, in ways that can better create pathways to economic mobility for the more than 70 million workers who lack college degrees but have the skills to succeed in higher-wage work.
2. The Apprenticeship of the Future
Can a centuries-old approach to education really be considered “new”? Even before the pandemic, apprenticeships — which have been around since the Middle Ages — were garnering renewed interest as an approach with bipartisan appeal that can both meet talent development needs and provide workers with new pathways to stable careers.
Long recognized as a “bright spot for bipartisanship,” workforce development received federal support during the Trump administration, which supported public-private partnerships focused on expanding or creating apprenticeship programs. At the same time, organizations like Techtonic have continued to help workers and employers alike weather the pandemic by pioneering a new, tech-focused approach to earning while learning.
3. The Rise of Outskilling
Of course, not all technological disruption is beneficial for workers — a fact that is becoming increasingly clear as the future of work becomes the present. According to a report released by General Assembly before the pandemic, seven in 10 employers said they’d had to lay off someone whose job had become redundant due to the implementation of new technology. Now, employers face even greater pressure to implement ethical approaches to offboarding employees.
For many employers, such an approach has included a perhaps counterintuitive workplace benefit: training for employees who will eventually leave their organization. So-called “outskilling,” as in the case of Amazon’s Career Choice program, helps organizations promote overall employee sentiment, establish positive long-term employee relationships and differentiate themselves in the eyes of potential candidates. But Penn Foster’s own pre-pandemic research found that while 80% of company leaders said they valued outskilling, only 40% had such a program in place.
As we face an uncertain economic outlook in the months ahead, employers that are responsive and empathetic to workers’ needs — even as they grapple with economic shocks — will be rethinking their approach to training, even for employees who may leave their organization. In doing so, they will reap the benefits in talent acquisition and retention.
4. The Potential of “First-mile” Services
First coined in the telecommunications industry, fields from supply chain management to workforce development have appropriated the term “last mile.” In the years that preceded the pandemic, “last-mile training” became a popular descriptor for the cadre of emerging short-form, career-aligned programs that provide on-ramps to the labor market’s most in-demand jobs.
There’s no doubt that last-mile programs are offering faster, cheaper pathways to economic mobility. But often overlooked are the “first-mile” realities faced by the millions of Americans who are left behind by economic growth: food insecurity, mental health concerns, lack of life skills, or even challenges with transportation and child care. These “community of care” social services are often primary determinants of academic outcomes and deliver an outsized advantage when delivered as part of a cohesive solution to reduce “life-gets-in-the-way” risk.
The pandemic has, of course, made many of these challenges even worse and deepened the urgency of providing wraparound support to displaced or low-income workers. There’s a growing understanding among both employers and training providers that these first-mile barriers must be addressed to close growing skill and equity gaps in the workforce. As a result, many companies are working with colleges and community organizations to help increase access to these services.
5. Getting Unstuck in the Middle
The landscape of so-called “middle skill” (between the high school diploma and the bachelor’s degree) opportunities is broad, complex and growing — and serves as the foundation for much of America’s productivity and prosperity. In fact, middle skill positions now make up the majority of the U.S. labor market.
But by suggesting a homogenous “middle” level of skills, the term threatens to undervalue the level of skill acquisition required for success in these roles, which are often highly skilled and specialized. Today, emerging approaches to skills-based hiring and digital badges — augmented by sophisticated, localized labor market data that can connect job seekers to in-demand careers — are challenging the “degree or not” dichotomy. They reflect increasing momentum toward a model that recognizes skill attainment not as binary but as a spectrum — one that can help to unlock opportunities on the supply and demand sides of the labor market.
As the country continues to grapple with the economic and public health implications of the pandemic, 2021 must be a year to both take stock of massive shifts and lay the foundation for a more secure and equitable future.