Learning Moves from “Nice to Have” to “Must Have” in Today’s Workplace

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This post is the third in a new content series that’s focused on improving learning through innovation. The series will explore the challenges and opportunities facing today’s educators and learners in K-12, higher education, and enterprise learning environments. Stay tuned for more blog posts, eBooks, community articles, and other resources as the series continues to develop.

What people are able to do with the knowledge they have can make a huge impact on their lives. Studies[1] show that people with poor literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. They also show that people with poor information processing skills have more limited access to basic services now found online, fewer opportunities to take on more rewarding jobs, and are limited in their ability to pursue further education and training opportunities. By contrast, there is a direct correlation[2] between higher education and career advancement.

Much has been made of the “skill gap” that exists within today’s workforce. According to experts, 47% of jobs through to 2020 will fall in the “middle skills” range[3], which includes positions that require workers to have post-secondary and/or technical training and in some cases college math courses and degrees. And yet, in a recent survey by Adecco[4]—a leading provider of recruitment solutions and HR services—92% of executives polled believe that American workers aren’t as skilled as they need to be. As a result of this skill gap, nearly half (45%) felt they are missing out on growth opportunities, 34% felt that product development is suffering, and 30% percent believed that company profits are being hurt.

If the current impact of the workforce skill gap isn’t dire enough, a quick look toward the future suggests the challenge will continue to be a concern. The effects of an aging workforce are only starting to percolate in the employment picture. It is estimated that by 2024 the number of people between the ages of 55 and 64 will have increased to 42 million, putting new strains on our employers and the economy.[5]

In short, our economy’s workforce skill gap carries with it an impact that goes far beyond the worker and the employer. There are very serious economic issues on the table, with skill shortages threatening to undermine our ability to compete globally.

While much focus has been placed on upgrading science, technology, engineering, and math learning at the K–12 level and on college readiness within the educational system, the focus on youth bound for tomorrow’s workforce will not be sufficient to fill the skills void. Employers will also be required to offer better retraining, reskilling, and other learning opportunities to existing workers, allowing those people already in the workforce to upgrade their “middle skills” and advance in their career.

The skill gap presents a new reality for workforce developers, educators, and trainers who must put in place aggressive and innovative strategies to solve the problem.

What strategies can employers use to address the challenge of the workforce skill gap?  

Registered apprenticeship programs. While the number of such programs in the US has declined 36% since 1996, studies show that graduates of apprenticeships realize $250,000 more in earnings over their lifetime and that employers improve return on investment by 38% through lower recruitment cost and offset contractor costs.[6]

Mentorship and knowledge transfer. While an aging workforce is part of the problem, it can also be part of the answer. Employers can establish formalized knowledge sharing programs, flexible work arrangements, and a favorable, multi-generational culture where their more senior counterparts can mentor younger employees and experience and knowledge can be seamlessly transferred.

eLearning. Workforce development professionals can take a page from their educational counterparts to embrace eLearning, with an online curriculum delivered through technology such as a learning platform. Leading organizations are now establishing eLearning environments, such as competency learning portals, where employees can tap into online resources and activities to advance professional learning. Other progressive employers are establishing their own career training centers and corporate “universities” where employees can receive customized training geared to organizational advancement. These organizations are also advancing partnerships with leading educational institutions to provide workers with access to executive leadership programs.

From campus to the workplace: University of Guelph’s Open Learning and Educational Support office

The University of Guelph (U of G), located in Guelph, Ontario, is one educational institution that has long taken a proactive approach to extending its research and teaching expertise beyond the confines of the campus and into the workplace. The university’s Open Learning and Educational Support provides a wide range of professional development courses and programs that take learning beyond the traditional, campus-based undergraduate and graduate courses to offer programs focused on professional development, certificate, and diploma-based learning that complement and extend U of G’s core curriculum. As much of the programming is available online, Open Learning and Educational Support attracts learners from all over the world.

“Our stakeholders are varied,” says Michelle Fach, Director, Open Learning and Educational Support at U of G. “Our programming appeals to professionals looking to develop new skills, upgrade their skills, or change career paths. We also work with companies that are looking to build capacity within their organization, associations and industries seeking to provide accreditation to members, and individuals with a passion or who have a general interest they are seeking to pursue.”

Some of the organizations that have tapped into U of G’s research and teaching expertise include:

  • A leading consumer packaged meats company, which has worked with Fach’s team to develop customized leadership development programs
  • A solar manufacturer who has tapped into U of G’s expertise to construct a two-day workshop for its project managers on financial and managerial accounting
  • A recreation facilities association which brings 600+ staff through its annual development program on the U of G campus

“There is both a desire and an increased need to strengthen the relationship between employers and universities so we can better prepare graduates for employment (more emphasis on soft skills, such as creativity and decision-making), and better prepare existing workers for upper management positions,” says Fach. “U of G is well-positioned in this regard. We have always been outward looking and active in delivering continuing education programming focused at the adult learner. And we have made it a priority to maintain strong ties with employers, industries, and associations to support their needs.”

The workforce skill gap is real, and is only destined to grow if active strategies are not implemented soon to address the issue. There are options available to employers who seek to groom today’s existing workforce for skills and career advancement. Apprenticeship programs, more progressive immigration policies, older to younger worker mentorship programs and knowledge transfer, and a focus on workplace curriculum development and online learning will help open doors to new opportunities for employees. Together, these efforts will go a long way toward minimizing—and hopefully closing—the skill gap that remains a threat to our long-term economic prosperity.

[1] http://skills.oecd.org/documents/SkillsOutlook_2013_KeyFindings.pdf

[2] http://www.sixsigmaonline.org/six-sigma-training-certification-information/higher-education-leads-to-career-advancement-opportunities.html

[3] https://hbr.org/2012/12/who-can-fix-the-middle-skills-gap

[4] http://www.adeccousa.com/employers/resources/Pages/skills-gap-in-the-american-workforce.aspx

[5] 2011 US Census

[6] https://hbr.org/2012/12/who-can-fix-the-middle-skills-gap

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