Problem Spotlight: Upskilling and reskilling America

Problem Spotlight: Upskilling and reskilling America

Historically low unemployment rates have challenged traditional notions of the skills gap, but employers consistently report difficulties finding skilled talent. And in a World Economic Forum survey of OECD countries, more than one-quarter of adults “reported a mismatch between their current skill sets and the qualifications required to do their jobs.”

Shifting demographics, along with the rise of technology and automation, are changing the way we work — and the way we learn. Americans are living longer and fertility rates are dropping, resulting in a population distribution that will look more like a pillar than a pyramid by 2060. As soon as 2035, the United States will be home to more people over 65 than under 18. Living longer means that retirees will have second careers — if they are healthy.

These shifts put greater pressure on education to prepare younger students for the jobs of tomorrow while simultaneously helping the current workforce upskill and reskill for the jobs of today. If the hallmark of 20th century learning was access to a college education, the 21st century will emphasize frameworks that support lifelong learning. Education is no longer a linear process with the endpoint of a single diploma, but a continuous and fluid process that should help us adapt to changing technological, economic, and social conditions.

What are “upskilling” and “reskilling”?

Upskilling is learning additional skills or enhancing existing abilities, often with the goal of advancement. A bank teller or retail store employee would upskill when transitioning to a management or corporate role.

Reskilling, on the other hand, is learning a new set of skills or training for a new role, often with the goal of transitioning to a new job or different industry. A truck driver who wants to become a computer programmer would need to reskill.

In the past, the responsibility for upskilling and reskilling fell into the domain of vocational training and workforce development. But today, upskilling and reskilling impact everyone and every type of organization.

How we got here

The speed at which jobs are changing — sometimes due to automation, sometimes due to new business models — means that we must constantly learn new skills. A number of converging factors are making it difficult for linear education models and traditional career paths to satisfy the rapidly evolving demands of modern workplaces.

Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, for the first time, 90% of American adults have completed high school. But one in 10 adults (nearly 25 million people) lack a high school credential, and 36 million lack the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills needed to succeed at work.

Employers increasingly require a bachelor’s degree for middle-skill, middle-class jobs, even though only one-third of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher. And getting that degree isn’t always easy. Undergraduate enrollment is up, but the percentage of recent high school graduates who are “college and career ready” is at a 14-year low. Today’s college students are paying twice as much as their parents for the same education; in 2018, student loan debt reached $1.5 trillion.

Meanwhile, every industry, workplace, and role has been impacted by the rise of technology; no matter what you do, you’ll need a basic understanding of tech in order to do it. In its Labor 2030 report, Bain estimated that “by the end of the 2020s, automation may eliminate 20% to 25% of current jobs, hitting middle- to low-income workers the hardest.” Automation is nothing new, and throughout history, new technologies have created more jobs than they have displaced. But these disruptions are painful, and it can take decades to recalibrate and recover lost wages.

All of these factors are contributing to greater inequality, which makes accessing resources and learning opportunities even more difficult. By mapping the skills associated with different types of jobs, MIT researchers found that low-wage workers are often trapped in manual jobs because of the difficulty of acquiring better-paid skills. That puts employees already vulnerable to automation at even greater risk.

What’s at stake

The World Economic Forum forecasts that reskilling 1.4 million U.S. workers — by all accounts, a low-end estimate of the jobs that will be displaced due to automation — will cost $34 billion. The actual numbers are up for debate, but we do know that investing in upskilling and reskilling is critical.

Low skill attainment has profound and far-reaching consequences, from generational wealth to civic engagement to health and wellness. Our entire economy depends on our ability to upskill and reskill. As life expectancies increase and people stay in the workforce longer, continuing education and training will be essential to ensuring America’s ability to compete globally, preserve the viability of our middle class, and maintain a high quality of life.

Potential solutions

There’s no consensus on the most efficient, effective ways to upskill and reskill, and given the speed of change, we are adapting in real time. We’re seeing an enormous volume of activity — from incumbent institutions to new entrants, in both public and private sectors — and a wide variety of collaborations designed to increase access, improve experiences, and boost outcomes.

What’s happening in education institutions

  • Community colleges are partnering with tech giants like Amazon and Google to establish apprenticeships, new certifications, and degree programs.
  • Southern New Hampshire University is partnering with employers to offer flexible degree programs, microcredentials, and boot camps.
  • Bard College, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Public Library, launched a “microcollege,” the “first-ever accredited two-year associate’s degree program in a public library,” which gives nontraditional students access to tuition-free education.
  • Open loop” programs at schools like Stanford University and University of Michigan give alumni the option to return for refresher classes, years or even decades after earning their degrees.
  • The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, through a partnership with local government and funding from and Walmart, wants to make South Bend, Indiana, a “city of lifelong learning.” The initiative intends to consolidate “what is currently a highly fragmented set of learning resources” into a unified system available to the entire community.
  • Trilogy Education, a workforce accelerator, partners with universities to develop “skills-based training programs that are driven by employer needs.”

What’s happening in industry

Emerging technology and novel partnerships

  • In 2017, CB Insights compiled a list of 90+ edtech startups across 14 categories — from online learning platforms like Coursera to language apps like Duolingo. But most products are geared toward early childhood or K-12 education; there are far fewer edtech solutions for adult education.
  • The Adult Literacy XPRIZE, an open innovation challenge, spurred the development of mobile apps to increase literacy skills among adult learners.
  • Walmart is using virtual reality headsets to train its U.S. store employees in several areas: new technology, compliance, and soft skills like empathy and customer service. The company is also investing $100 million in its Retail Opportunity Initiative, awarding grants and collaborating with nonprofits, government agencies, and educational institutions to help retail workers learn new skills.
  • JFFLabs’ accelerator, in partnership with Walmart, works with entrepreneurs and growth-stage companies to advance and scale technology-based solutions for workers and employers.
  • The Illinois Digital Learning Lab is a community of adult educators experimenting with digital tools to improve learning outcomes.
  • OER (open educational resources) are free, open-source materials that can include textbooks, worksheets, videos, and software. In a resource-constrained environment like adult education, these free resources can help overcome equity barriers.
  • MOOCs (massive online open courses) are also free, and are meant to democratize higher education. But a study by University of Michigan researchers notes that “the majority of people taking advantage of these courses are already employed, have post-secondary degrees, and have encountered few barriers related to the affordability of higher education” and suggests that MOOCs could be better adapted to address needs of those who cannot afford a formal education.

Next-generation credentials and assessments

  • The growth of online learning offers a chance to rethink how to provide meaningful credentials for learning that happens outside of traditional education programs.
  • Credential Engine’s Credential Registry is “a cloud-based library that collects, maintains, and connects information on all types of credentials,” whether they’re diplomas, apprenticeships, licenses, or other achievements.
  • Stackable credentials” award credit for “a range of education, training, workplace learning, and skill-building experiences that ‘stack’ toward associate degrees.”
  • Digital Promise, an education nonprofit, collaborated with Facebook to create “microcredentials” to help job seekers gain digital skills and display their expertise.
  • RISE Up, a collaboration between retailers and nonprofits, is a training and credentials program geared toward first-time job seekers and entry-level employees.
  • Skillist is a job application platform that connects job seekers with employers by focusing on skills rather than credentials.
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology partnered with Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities for the EDU 2030 Challenge. The open innovation challenge named 10 winners that are “reimagining the higher education ecosystem” with partnerships, artificial intelligence, blockchain infrastructure, and new models for learning.

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Sara Holoubek
Founding Partner and CEO
Jessica Hibbard
Head of Content & Community