Our Skills Shortage, The Workforce, and How It Gets Educated
Self-Learning and a Change of Attitude
An issue of the Economist in 2017, well before the pandemic, outlined some of the emerging trends in re-educating the current workforce and training the new one. Unfortunately, they have not been put into practice as widely as this article hoped.
A large part of the current shortage of engineers, software developers, and other skilled workers has resulted from declining levels of workplace training and a focus on only hiring already well-trained and experienced staff.
The corporate focus has been on short-term cost-cutting without sufficient focus on what that might mean for the longer-term success of their business. There has been little commitment to training as it has been easier to find and hire skilled people than train existing workers.
The pandemic changed all of this.
The new workforce will be vastly different made up of regular employees, part-time workers, some-time workers, consultants, contractors, and outsourcing partners. This will force changes in policies, hiring requirements, and accelerate continuous learning.
Corporate Education and Our Skill Shortage
Historically, internal training programs augmented or replaced the need for college degrees and provided firms with a source of culturally adapted and experienced people that could move to new positions as the need arose. This minimized recruiting and lowered the time spent and the cost of finding and enculturating new employees. As most employees were permanent and the skills needed for success were relatively stable, this meant there was always a predictable supply of talent.
The U.S. has a history of strong support for education through our free elementary and high school system and the land grant (public and state) universities. The G.I. bill, passed by Congress in 1944, made university education affordable for thousands of returned servicemen and women. And this has been maintained and augmented since the Vietnam War and our current conflicts. Many American corporations, such as General Motors and IBM, also established training institutes and created in-house development programs to ensure a supply of trained workers.
During a brief period in the 1990s, corporate universities sprang up in many large firms with the promise of sustaining an educated workforce. But they often left out the rank and file employees, concentrating on developing managers or leaders or introducing new concepts to management. In recent decades, corporations have not offered much blue-collar and mid-level workers training.
Several other factors have also played a part in creating the skill shortage we now face. Employees who were laid off or realized that their skills were either obsolete or inadequate could not find the training they needed or could not afford it. Academic institutions, which are notoriously slow to respond to emerging needs, failed to pick up on the need to educate and re-educate workers quickly.
Credential creep - the tendency to require more and more degrees and experience, regardless of a person’s skills or job function - caused much of the so-called talent shortage. Jobs that are not significantly changed from a decade ago now often require higher levels of education or more credentials. This has left many people out of the running for jobs they could do.
The result is a manufactured skills shortage – created by our own policies and shortsightedness, which is compounded by the emergence of more automation using artificial intelligence and robots.
New Shape of Education
Traditional educational institutions are slowly adapting and offering more online resources, shorter courses, and learning integrated with work. New online resources are also springing up, including hundreds of apps that accelerate language and math skills, increase vocabulary, improve reading skills, and simulate various work activities. Augmented reality provides learners with the feeling of being in a place and allows them to interact with objects in that environment. This allows learning such things as how to fly an airplane or operate a machine. Online courses from various sources, including traditional universities, open a world of education to anyone.
Workers can brush up on a skill, learn a new skill, practice doing an activity, or take interactive knowledge tests on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Videos, simulations, and games provide a varied and engaging learning environment. Online tests provide real-time feedback, which can accelerate learning.
There is less need to hire people with specific skills when a person with the right motivation and access to learning apps can acquire skills quickly. Workers can learn a new coding language, for example, in hours or days by interactive learning experiences and examples from experts delivered as needed by video. Doctors can improve a surgical technique by practicing augmented reality simulations before a procedure. A large amount of expert knowledge can be embedded into processes and machines augmented with artificial intelligence, reducing the need for human experts. This reduction in need means that with readily available, portable, and affordable tools, workers can learn faster and with greater flexibility than ever and need fewer credentials.
The new learning is largely self-directed, real-time, and interactive. More of it will be delivered in video or game-like formats. Much of it will be short - lessons that can be completed in a few minutes - so people can learn whenever they want. And more learning is now embedded in apps. For example, we all use navigation tools with no training because they are built to be self-explanatory. Almost no appliance or piece of equipment comes with an instruction manual because there is no need to have one- the product has been made so easy to use that a manual is unnecessary.
A Change of Attitude
The fact that so many employees are resigning may incentivize organizations to adopt less stringent job requirements and provide access and time for training and development. The workforce will educate itself with a little help from more flexible policies and respect for workers’ abilities and capability to learn. Universities will remain relevant as long as they adapt, but they will not be the sole providers. Private firms, individuals, and even product makers will also offer learning content. Coaches and tutors will become more important, as well, offering the guidance that online tools cannot.
The learning world will be as complex and varied as the workforce itself.
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