Our Skills Shortage, The Gig Workforce, and How It Gets Educated

by | Aug 21, 2017 | Talent, Learning, Trends

An issue of the Economist earlier this year 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. A large part of the current shortage of manufacturing staff, software developers and other skilled workers has been the result of declining levels of workplace training. According to Scott Paul, president of the Alliance of American Manufacturing, “The United States trails virtually all its industrial competitors in public and private spending on training.”

With the emerging gig workforce – in fact with the highly complex emerging workforce made up of regular employees, part-time workers, some-time workers, consultants, contractors, and outsourcing partners –  job requirements, education, and re-education become more complex. Corporations may decide to restart employee development programs, but most training will be self-initiated or come from a blend of self-learning and learning from public and private third-party providers.

Corporate Education and Our Skill Shortage

Historically, internal training programs augmented or replaced 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 as well as the cost of finding and enculturating new employees.

The U.S. has a history of strong support for education through our free elementary and high school system as well as 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 on introducing new concepts to management. In recent decades, corporations have not offered much training to blue-collar and mid-level workers. Automation, outsourcing, and more efficient processes and equipment have also reduced the need for training or re-training and replaced many workers. And, with the advent in the current H1-B visa program in 1990, many technical workers were permanently replaced with cheaper foreign workers.

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 for years it was easier to find and hire skilled people rather than train existing workers.

Several other factors have also played a part in creating the skill shortage we now face.  Employees who were laid off or who realized that their skills were either obsolete or not adequate 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.

And, there has been a tendency to require more and more skills no matter what job function. Jobs that are not significantly changed from a decade ago, now often require higher levels of education or more credentials. This creeping credentialism has left many people out of the running for jobs they could do even without the credential.

The result is to some degree a manufactured skills shortage – created by our own policies and shortsightedness which is compounded by the emergence of more automation using artificial intelligence and well as “smarter” 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 a variety of work activities.  Augmented reality provides learners with the feeling of being in a place and gives them the ability to interact with objects in that environment. This opens training to everything from learning how to fly an airplane to how to navigate around a city to practicing working on a machine. Online courses from a variety of sources, including traditional universities, open a world of education to anyone with a smart phone or computer.

Gig workers can brush up on a skill, learn a new skill, practice doing an activity, or take interactive tests of knowledge on a smart phone. 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 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 a manner of hours or days by interactive learning experiences and examples from experts delivered as needed by video. Doctors can improve a surgical technique by practicing with 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 have a little time available. 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 not necessary.

The workforce will educate itself with a little help from content provided and delivered by a wide variety of providers. 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, providing the guidance that the online tools cannot.

The learning world will be as complex and varied as the workforce itself.

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