Reskilling the New Workforce

There is a cure for the severe shortage of transportable, current, and relevant skills.

A recent issue of the Economist outlined some of the emerging trends in re-educating the current workforce and in training the new one.  These efforts are to be applauded, but it is too bad they did not come a decade sooner.

Much of the current labor shortage was created at least to some degree by corporations ending or reducing internal employee training and development and by the inability of academic institutions to adapt to the changing needs of their students and the workplace. This has led to a severe shortage of transportable, current, and relevant skills.

Recruiters are in a tough spot. They cannot increase the available talent supply. All they can do is steal from one another for a short time and hope that their corporate culture or pay scales are adequate to keep people from leaving too quickly. Playing musical talent chairs is never a good long-term strategy.

The History

Historically, American academic institutions focused on providing a four-year broad-based education consisting of two years of general education and two years of education in a specific field such as engineering, math, or political science. This provided employers with a source of candidates who could adapt to many different situations with minimal training.

The Ivy League schools did this even better. They adopted a 4+1 plan where the first four years were all general education (language, history, science, math, geography, etc.) and a fifth-year was devoted exclusively to a discipline. This may be why these schools garnered such a strong reputation. Their graduates were prepared for almost any kind of work.

It is not uncommon to find people who studied one thing doing something quite different after a few years of work. Because they had a relatively broad general education, they could be moved to new positions as the need arose. They either learned on the job by observation or practice or had an opportunity of receiving internal training. This increased the diversity of skills available to the organization, minimized recruiting, and lowered the time spent and the cost of finding and enculturating new employees.

Employers such as IBM, General Electric, Motorola, and many others offered a wide array of internal training programs to develop employees for work that often was proprietary. They rarely went to the experienced talent market for people, focusing on hiring and training new graduates. During a brief period in the 80s and early 90s, corporate universities sprang up in many large firms to enhance their workforce. General Electric’s Crotonville and Motorola U are examples. These offered advanced training in leadership or introduced new concepts to management. They often partnered with an established academic institution to offer advanced degrees or specialized training. The training often enabled many employees to move from hourly to professional roles, adapt better to emerging technologies, or gain skills that were hard to find in the talent marketplace. These training functions ensured a steady supply of talent.

Unfortunately, in the 1990s, often to save money or maximize short-term profits, these training efforts faded or ceased altogether in many organizations. Some firms began automating certain types of work and eliminated or reduced their need for employees. Recessions and the focus on stock performance accelerated the decline. Automation played a role, and most economists admit that routine manufacturing jobs and many administrative and clerical positions will never return. Even white-collar jobs such as administrative assistants, paralegals, and retail staff have seen significant reductions in demand.  This has displaced a large number of people who would like to work but who lack the necessary skills.

Academic education has been driven for some time now by corporations who have asked for education that is often short-term and misplaced. Many institutions are closing down their language and liberal arts education programs due to a lack of demand and replacing them with technical and science-related classes. Corporations that pushed for these changes are now often unwilling to hire the graduates because their skills are not specific enough. This has led to students graduating with technical skills but finding it hard to land a job. And equally unfortunate, they lack a broad base of general skills that might help them find alternative careers.

Some corporations have offloaded their learning needs to academic institutions and expect them to provide equivalent learning to what was provided internally, forgetting that academics have no real idea what these firms once provided or need.  Providing the training for the nuanced skills required in many firms is not something academe is good at. Reskilling and reeducating the existing workforce is outside the scope and capabilities of most academic institutions.

Corporations need people with a mix of theoretical and practical education with an emphasis on practical. Academic institutions are mostly capable of providing the theoretical. There is a subtle blend between the two, and what has worked in the past best is to hire people with basic academic education and then train them on the practical after they are hired.

With the emerging gig workforce – in fact, with the highly complex emerging workforce comprised of regular employees, part-time workers, some-time workers, consultants, contractors, and outsourcing partners – education and re-education become more complex. 

The Future

To meet their talent needs, corporations will need to restart employee development programs. In a recent Gartner survey, 68% of HR executives placed building skills and competencies as their #1 priority for 2021.  Given that we are still mostly working remotely and need to avoid classrooms or face-to-face coaching, how will organizations skill, reskill, or upskill their workforce?

Before this pandemic’s disruption, most corporate learning, if it existed at all, was traditional and was primarily one-way from the teacher to the student with little opportunity for feedback, questioning, or deep discussion. Classroom lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and large groups of people were the normal way of transmitting knowledge. Technical training was often on the job with guidance from an experienced employee.

These don't work anymore or cannot take place because of the pandemic.  Zoom classes and online learning, at least the way it has been done for the past year, are not motivating or effective.

There are more effective ways.

Virtual Apprenticeships & Internships

Apprenticeships are powerful and were the mainstay of 18th-century education. They directly couple a learner with an expert and place an expectation on both of producing performance.

Even today, thousands of skills are learned this way. Almost all manual skills, including running machinery, operating vehicles, handling chemicals, working in laboratories, or even learning to be a physician, are acquired through apprenticeships. Psychiatrists, priests, and army generals learn most of what they know by practicing under the eyes of an expert who guides them, tweaks performance, and provides instant performance feedback.

Apprenticeships can be effectively delivered using simulations, virtual reality, and live video with feedback from an online expert.

Even management and leadership can be learned online through apprenticeships, virtual practice sessions, and simulations.  The classroom has never been a good place to learn leadership and is never a substitute for actually leading people and dealing with day-to-day issues and concerns. Through online feedback and simulations, leaders get a far more realistic learning experience.

Internships have also moved to the virtual world. Many university students are now participating in a virtual internship where they work on a project with a remote team. Internships can be widely focused on everything from marketing and communications to sales and coding.

Virtual worlds, simulations, and augmented reality are now emerging as primary ways to offer apprenticeships and internships safely and remotely. Emerging technology platforms for virtual apprenticeships include VirtualApprentice and Acadium.

Online and Informal learning

We learn the vast majority of what we know informally- without apprenticeships, textbooks, or teachers.  We figure things out our own way; we ask questions; we find resources to tap into, such as Wikipedia or the Internet itself.

Eager learners reach out to others, often called crowdsourcing these days, to learn what they need to know. They also tap into their social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn for advice, guidance, and practical information.

Independent learners naturally gravitate toward the Internet, and Google is said to be the biggest teacher. Google is an “all-knowing being” who can provide magical answers.  Even online search results need to be validated and mentored to be the most effective, but the results do fill many learning needs.

Educators and corporate training folks can create curated portals to help direct employees to the best sources for relevant learning. Trainers can act as online advisors or coaches to lead discussions and provide additional advice or coaching.

Mentoring and Coaching

Mentoring is an informal apprenticeship, and because of that, it is significantly different. With apprenticeship comes an element of performance mastery: each party is expected to play a role in building capability and performance. Mentoring is much less formal and implies a casual exchange of ideas, loose guidance, and even friendship.

Mentors are transmitters of wisdom and experience often gained by years of practice or just living. There is nothing formal in a mentoring relationship.

Coaching is a bit more formal with an expectation that there will be learning or performance improvement. There are tools to assist in mentoring and coaching, including TalentismGloat, and Fuel50.

Mobile Apps & Social Learning

One emerging trend is for organizations to use their internal communication tools and communities to share experiences and learning. Expert or knowledgeable employees share their experiences, provide immediate guidance or answer questions using existing tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams.

There are also dozens of mobile apps, as well, that teach everything from languages to leadership.

There are apps for learning coding, engineering, math, accounting, and much more. Check out CourseraEdX, or iTunes U, or even LinkedIn Learning for serious courses. A little exploring will open a multitude of learning opportunities.

Wise training professionals will understand that the enduring core of learning is finding ways to transfer knowledge, experience, and wisdom quickly and when needed. Their job is to make sure that various tools and ways to learn are not dependent on formal instruction, classrooms, or training departments.

There are many roads to help people gain new skills. It will take an imaginative and experimental mindset to forge the best combination.

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