'Upskilling' Must Improve to Provide the Skilled Workers Entrepreneurs Need to Succeed
A strong economy has driven unemployment down significantly across the U.S. professional landscape, but the connection between upskilling and economic opportunity continues to be more limited than it should be, and the outcome is hobbling entrepreneurs. Data points like the skills gap point to a chasm between in-demand jobs and the talent pool, while also highlighting how more skill should equate to more money for workers.
The explosion of independent work makes an even better case for skill development to drive income, as it’s never been easier for a skilled independent worker to find opportunity and ultimately contribute to the economy. But despite that premise creating a great incentive to learn, the skills gap remains. Why?
Simply put, many of the systems that exist to bring education to workers and ultimately to the businesses that rely on them are broken. While higher education and workforce development organizations attempt to solve the problem, they fall short for various reasons. The solutions begin by addressing affordability and broader accessibility, responsive skill training, business-centric learning and finding way to approach the upskilling problem with these needs in mind. By creating more efficient and lucrative ways to upskill workers everywhere, entrepreneurs and the economy as a whole will thrive.
Traditional higher education has long been considered a route to prosperity, with four-year bachelor degree graduates boasting 56 percent higher earnings than high school graduates, according to the Economic Prosperity Institute. However, higher education has come to mostly stand for a hefty price tag (and potentially crippling long-term student debt) while often focusing less on the practical skills businesses need and more on the conceptual elements of learning. While there is absolutely a place for the exchange of ideas and higher levels of thinking that occur across college campuses, higher education must also satiate the demands of learners in terms of a return on investment -- especially given the price tag. With $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the United States, it’s safe to say that’s not occurring.
Asking workers to exchange future upside for a financial pit is enough to scare many off, while creating more pressure for immediate returns after completing courses. In an era of widespread information sharing, actionable education doesn’t have to come with a massive price tag, and hyper-focused skill training must make a compelling case for a return on investment for workers.
Aside from making upskilling affordable, it must also be accessible. According to the New York Times, just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in rural areas are enrolled in college, compared with 47 percent of their urban peers. The good news is that higher education is moving more toward being digitally accessible, with more than six million U.S. students taking online higher education courses in 2016, according to Babson College. However, the trend is highly concentrated, with just 5 percent of institutions accounting for almost half of all online education students.
Creating access means bringing educational opportunities to the people, and the means including all digital and mobile devices. With mobile internet browsing climbing to reach 63 percent of all U.S. traffic in 2017, true progress in upskilling must include device-agnostic access.
Staying ahead of the curve.
Potential alternative groups to higher education like workforce development institutions grapple with a different problem than just cost or accessibility: how to maintain relevant coursework that simultaneously closes the gap between education and monetization. On one side of the problem is keeping up with the pace of innovation and professional demands. The Brookings Institute studied 545 jobs from 2002 to 2016 and found that the levels of digital competency across those 545 jumped 57 percent. Specifically, the share of employment in occupations with high digital needs increased nearly fivefold from 4.8 percent in 2002 to 23 percent of employment in 2016. The trend toward newer technologies will only continue, with Indeed finding the most in-demand IT jobs of 2020 including “computer vision engineer” and “machine learning engineer.”
Upskilling must constantly have an eye toward the “best bets” for workers, focusing on today’s top skills while recognizing how those skills can build a foundation for tomorrow’s top jobs. Individuals businesses may not have the insights required to make those bets, but employment and skill-based platforms can absolutely play a role in informing upskilling opportunities. Companies like Fiverr that see the global demand for talent can be part of the process that shortens the loop between education and application for workers.
The tools to monetize
While staying ahead of the curve poses serious problems for workforce development groups, giving students the experience they need to monetize their skills is an even larger challenge. Just because a worker has a skill doesn’t mean he or she knows how to turn it into an income. During a time when the relationship between worker and business is changing, it’s increasingly common to see new economy workers operating independently, which means being accountable for more than just a skill. It means spending some amount of time on running the “business of you,” and learning how to monetize an in-demand skill.
Building a skill set must come with some education on how that skill set translates into a monetary benefit. From developing a proposal to understanding whether to charge by the project or by the hour, upskilling education should carry with it the larger application of a skill to truly give workers the best chance to put their talents to use.
The U.S. economy continues to change in a world of automation and technological innovation, and as a result, many jobs will change. Some will become obsolete while others are created, but the individuals behind those jobs and skills will still need to find a way to make a living while contributing to the larger economy. The businesses that rely on those individuals will still need to find talent to drive results. Solving the upskilling problem is not an easy one, but the economic impact it offers is significant. Creating affordable, accessible, in-demand and practical educational resources will go a long way in providing workers the tools to succeed.