Building Back Better with Upskilling and Lifelong Learning

Building Back Better with Upskilling and Lifelong Learning
Reskilling employees is a business imperative

The pace of change is the fastest it has ever been and the slowest it is ever going to be. In the face of ever-evolving technology including advances in automation and artificial intelligence, how will today’s businesses adapt to maintain their competitive advantage while becoming more resilient? The answer lies in fostering an environment that promotes and provides lifelong learning opportunities.

Experts suggest that roughly 17 million U.S. employees may need to transition to jobs requiring new skills by 2030. For Black and Hispanic employees and those without college degrees the likelihood of them needing to change occupations is even greater.

Long gone are the days of developing a specific skillset during the early years of your career and relying on it to carry you to retirement. Likewise, employers can no longer hire employees with specific skill sets and assume they will fulfill their business needs for years to come. The half-life of skills is shrinking so quickly that continuous education and upskilling are no longer a “perk” or employee benefit, they are a business imperative for both companies and employees to thrive in a 21st century economy.

While all of our jobs or aspects of them are at risk of irrelevancy, the jobs most susceptible to displacement are those held by frontline employees—roles in which people of color are overrepresented due to policies and practices in the United States. Just as racial and health inequity has exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis for Black Americans and people of color so too will increased automation. Pre-COVID-19 research found that Black Americans are at a 10% greater risk of job loss due to automation and that figure jumps to 30% for Black men without a college degree. COVID-19 has accelerated many businesses’ automation plans thus displacing more people faster.

It’s not all bad news. While automation may eliminate many frontline roles it doesn’t mean that the net number of jobs is going away—it just means that the lower skilled jobs will be replaced by higher skilled ones.

Take for example, the role of a meter reader at utility companies. Utility companies are increasingly eliminating the role of meter readers who would travel to customers’ homes and manually record meter readings. Now technology automates the collection of meter data in real time. However, with this technological advance comes the need for employees with new skills to install, repair, and replace the wireless readers as well as collect, analyze, and manage the data collected.

For the utility company it makes more business sense to retrain and invest in their current employees for these new roles because people with these skills do not yet exist. This underlying story holds true across industries—it is cheaper to retrain a current employee for a new role than it is to hire externally.

The way to structure and provide training for employees is going to vary by industry and is dependent on the type of skills a business and its employees need. Possible paths could include collaborating with local community colleges to develop role-specific curriculum or through partnering with organizations like Guild Education, General Assembly, or Unmudl. One early, but potentially promising solution to help pay for this training is through career impact bonds and income-share agreements. Of course, training on its own will not lead to equitable economic mobility—ideally it is paired with other employer policies and practices that support on-the-job-success.

While policymakers are beginning to take many of these ideas seriously, what remains true, regardless of the specific solution(s), is a new equitable approach to skilling and learning must emerge and employers have a role to play in that shift.

Employers who take the long view and are willing to invest in their employees will be the ones who continue to innovate, grow, and lead the world into a resilient future.

If you’re ready to invest in your frontline employees I encourage you to learn how our Rewire Labs and Rewire Accelerators have helped companies spark new ways of thinking on how to help their employees and business thrive.