Creating the Future Workforce Today

By Michael J. Fenlon and Brian K. Fitzpatrick – Published 2021 by the Business Higher Education ForumSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

In this report, the Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF) and PwC “examine how leaders in business and education can continue to collaboratively build an adaptive, inclusive, sustainable workforce for the 21st century innovation economy.”

The report starts with the description of an ADAPT framework (Asymmetry, Disruption, Age, Polarization, and Trust) as a means to establish the urgent issues that are driving change.

This is about wealth inequality and the wearing down of the middle class as our Digital Age continues to concentrate wealth and power into small groups. According to the Federal Reserve, in the U.S., 10% of the population controls about 70% of all the wealth, while the bottom 50% of the population controls about 2% of all the wealth. In addition, according to Opportunity Insights,  upward mobility has become harder to achieve. In 1940, 90% of children born in the U.S. eventually wound up earning more than their parents, while only 50% of children born in 1985 met that same benchmark.  More people are retiring without additional pension safety nets or significant savings, and mid-career workers are increasingly at risk of losing their jobs to automation and other industry disruptions. 

The Digital Age or what’s sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings rapid technological advancement that in turn transforms “every aspect of our existence: how and where we work, what skills we need, how we interact, and how much privacy we retain.” There is both job loss due to industrial automation and job gain due to the constantly evolving Digital Age. Everyone is struggling to keep up and remain relevant and competitive.

Both younger and older workers face challenges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, life expectancy is projected to reach 85.6 years by 2060, causing older workers to increase their participation in the workforce longer for their own economic growth and well-being. Younger workers will be forced to remain in their jobs longer as retirement options continue to diminish. Student debt will continue to deter younger workers from investing in education or entrepreneurship. “Providing workers of all ages pathways into the innovation economy is an important component of sustainability. Affordable opportunities for truly lifelong learning, like stackable certificates that can lead to degrees at workers’ own pace, will allow workers of any age to upskill as jobs and skills shift.”

If the current political and cultural divisions aren’t enough, more income inequality will leave large segments of society behind, creating even more extremist views, distrust, and a collapse in meaningful, change-oriented policies and civil discourse. “From climate change to vaccinations to election integrity, we see large-scale rejection of expertise, polarization of fact bases and priorities, and a lack of global or national consensus. Echo chambers created by social media, algorithm-based news feeds and an increasingly fractured media are fueling political and cultural polarization, including the spread of conspiracy theories.”

Trust in all information resources is at a record low. Only 35% of survey participants in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer say they trust social media. “In a splintered society, fears that a good education is inaccessible, particularly to racially/ethnically underrepresented students, and that schools are not meeting students’ needs for career success add to mistrust.”

The ADAPT framework “are now on fast forward. Although daunting to address, these forces make returning to the pre-pandemic status quo a non-starter. Longer working lives and fast-changing skills demands are contributing to a shift from the traditional higher education model to more adaptive, skill-based learning.”

Educating and Transforming the Workforce
The need to upskill and reskill will accelerate and cause businesses to focus more substantially on closing the accompanying skills gap. The report points to an unpublished PwC and the World Economic Forum report that prognosticates how the U.S. could gain $900 billion – or 3.7% of GDP  –  if the U.S. closes the skills gap by 2030. In 2018, BHEF commissioned Burning Glass Technologies “to examine the new skills in the job market of the digital economy, analyzing roughly 56 million resumes and more than 150 million unique U.S. job postings.”

Here are four basic foundational skill areas the BHEF/BGT research came up with:

  • Workplace skills, including analytical reasoning, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, resilience, and cross-cultural perspective. 
  • Business skills, including business processes, decision-making, operations and project management, and visualization. Additionally, marketing, sales and content production, and other roles that require facility interacting with different types of people remain in demand.
  • Digital skills, including AI, robotics, data science and analytics, information security, programming, big data and data management, and software development. Emerging industry-specific digital skills include: e-commerce and social media specialists (consumer sector), fintech engineers (financial services) and materials engineers (automotive). 
  • Domain knowledge in areas like biology, economics, sociology and physics. Beyond these more technical areas, marketing, sales and content production, and other roles that require facility interacting with different types of people remain in demand. 

Rethinking Education and Training
Higher education was dealing with enrollment declines pre-pandemic, and in 2020, Black, Hispanic and Native American freshman enrollment dropped by nearly 30% at community colleges, versus 20% for White and Asian Americans. Simultaneously, the rapid shift to online education during the pandemic exacerbated the education barriers and distractions many students faced, such as lack of reliable internet, inadequate technology, lack of interaction, and work and familial obligations. There has obviously been a strong push by higher education to improve online learning access and pedagogy, yet the overall value proposition of higher education still faces a growing skepticism.

The combination of a skills gap and the costly prospect of entering into debt-ridden higher education pathway has brought about opportunities for business, education, and government “to rethink how they train the workforce for the future. Significant change is already underway. Enrollment in short-term credential classes has increased 70%, compared to the prior year [according to the Wall Street Journal].  Competency-based and requiring less time and tuition than a conventional degree, these courses aim to match skills to evolving hiring needs. Credentials can also “stack” over time to earn degrees.”  

So, in effect, businesses are looking beyond degrees in relation to their hiring and training practices, with a more pointed focus on skills instead of degrees, and a stronger push to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. As noted in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, “94% of global business leaders surveyed expect employees to gain new skills on the job (up significantly from 65% in 2018).” 

However, “despite the benefits of upskilling, many employers and employees remain hesitant to invest in these opportunities. While 75% of Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) surveyed by PwC plan to increase employee support through upskilling, only 39% of CFOs said the same, suggesting competing C-suite priorities. . . This raises the question how to effectively increase engagement and whether employees believe their employers value retraining efforts.” 

Case Studies
The second half of this report included case studies that represent collaborative efforts by educators and business leaders “to reimagine not only how to educate the workforce to use technology, but also how to use technology to educate.”

For example, PwC recently created ProEdge, a “platform designed to help clients close skills gaps from within to avoid disruption and stay competitive. The platform’s customized, adaptive curriculum and credentials are mapped to future roles and tailored to individual learning goals.” Other PwC initiatives include a Digital Badge Program and a report about transparency titled “Building on a Culture of Belonging.”

Some (not all) of the other case studies presented: 

  • A Miami Dade College collaboration with BHEF, NextEra Energy, MDC, and others that launched a suite of industry-recognized stackable credentials. 
  • A Washington University in St. Louis and The Boeing Company Joint Engineering Leadership Development Program that “supports educational and economic equity for underrepresented students who start in the community college system, have significant family obligations, are changing careers or are veterans.” 
  • An IBM digital credentials and P-Tech holistic credentialing framework  “that provides high school students from underserved backgrounds with the academic, technical, and professional skills and credentials they need for competitive STEM jobs.”
  • A ECMC award given to BHEF to collaborate with the New England Board of Higher Education “to help community colleges issue industry-validated credentials that support educational and career pathways across Connecticut.”
  • The One Columbus Workforce Strategy that “serves companies seeking to expand existing operations or introduce a new operation to the Columbus Region, by connecting them with the right talent.”

Recommendations and a Call to Action
Finally, the report concludes with a set of recommendations, ranging from creating new pathways, increasing flexible credential offers, and growing a focus on skills and/or competencies, to supporting apprenticeships and internships, and “speaking up about the compelling benefits of upskilling. . .”  There’s also a call to action, which states how “we all share a responsibility to reskill our workforce for the future, an investment that will help secure the future of individual employees, our businesses, and our society.”  

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