We’re not sure about lifelong learning becoming and imperative – it already is an imperative, in our view – but, in any case, The Economist has published a special report on lifelong education that is well worth reading. It echoes many themes that are central to Leading the Learning Revolution as well as our writing and speaking in various places over the past several years. In this post, I highlight pieces of it that I find particularly interesting and relevant.
Technology Is Playing Havoc
There is little question that technology – particularly via automation – is playing havoc with the employment market. While many have pointed to this shift as creating even more need for formal higher education, The Economist report suggests a more complex picture.
The returns to education, even for the high-skilled, have become less clear-cut. Between 1982 and 2001 the average wages earned by American workers with a bachelor’s degree rose by 31%, whereas those of high-school graduates did not budge, according to the New York Federal Reserve. But in the following 12 years the wages of college graduates fell by more than those of their less educated peers. Meanwhile, tuition costs at universities have been rising.
While it is still generally advantageous to pursue high levels of formal education, the future for both low- and high-skilled workers looks increasingly uncertain. The report notes:
… since 2000 the share of employment accounted for by high-skilled jobs in America has been falling. As a result, college-educated workers are taking on jobs that are cognitively less demanding, displacing less educated workers.
The bottom line is that technology is changing the nature of most jobs and altering the specifics skills and tasks associated with them – often dramatically. The foundation of a college education, while still valuable, is increasingly insufficient. As the report puts it,
A college degree at the start of a working career does not answer the need for the continuous acquisition of new skills, especially as career spans are lengthening. Vocational training is good at giving people job-specific skills, but those, too, will need to be updated over and over again during a career lasting decades.
This, of course, is a central point in the introduction of of Leading the Learning Revolution, and it is underlies the concept of “the other 50 years.” The whole notion of a “third sector” of education (see our comments on this from the Leading Learning Symposium) arises from the fact that adults need to continually learn and re-learn throughout their careers.
Of course, that begs the question: how will they go about doing this?
Traditional Corporate Training Falling Short
At least so far, employers appear not to be the answer. While corporate leaders are quick to point out the deficiencies of college graduates (a point covered in Shift Ed), they seem less ready to supply solutions. The report notes:
In its 2015 Economic Report of the President, America’s Council of Economic Advisers found that the share of the country’s workers receiving either paid-for or on-the-job training had fallen steadily between 1996 and 2008. In Britain the average amount of training received by workers almost halved between 1997 and 2009, to just 0.69 hours a week.
Even as they lament the current situation, employers are benefiting in many ways from what automation, offshoring, and the massive growth of the freelance economy make available. As Jonas Prising, CEO of Manpower, puts it “Organisations have moved from creating talent to consuming work.” (And this, apparently, in spite of all the buzz in recent years about “talent” in the corporate learning and development market.)
So the Burden Falls to Learners?
Readers here or on Mission to Learn know that I often stress the concept of “learner responsibility,” based on the recognition that most meaningful learning requires some work on the part of the learner. People who are not curious, motivated, and willing to take responsibility for their own learning simply will not learn as much or as effectively.
Corporations are already starting to tune into the value of hiring employees who demonstrate a desire and ability to learn. In the “What employers can do to encourage their workers to retrain” section of the report, The Economist highlights a number of efforts by larger, mostly technology companies – Infosys, Microsoft, Google – to help employees become better learners and, crucially, to recruit employees – and contractors – who demonstrate a strong penchant for learning up front.
As valuable as these efforts are, there is a disturbing “the rich get richer” side to them. The people most likely to take responsibility for their own learning are typically already well-educated, high-skilled, and more likely to have been exposed to the types of habits and practices that support lifelong learning. They are also often young. All of which, of course raises questions about how lower-skilled and mid-to-late career workers are likely to fare in the new learning – and employment – landscape. As the report states:
… for now this nascent ecosystem is disproportionately likely to benefit those who least need help. It concentrates on advanced technological skills, which offer the clearest returns and are relatively easy to measure. And it assumes that people have the money, time, motivation and basic skills to retrain.
At a minimum, there seems to be good reason not to leave the focus on learner responsibility solely in the hands of employers and market forces.
An Important Role for Associations?
In describing the overall situation, The Economist suggests that:
The faint outlines of a new ecosystem for connecting employment and education are becoming discernible. Employers are putting greater emphasis on adaptability, curiosity and learning as desirable attributes for employees. They are working with universities and alternative providers to create and improve their own supply of talent. Shorter courses, lower costs and online delivery are making it easier for people to combine work and training. New credentials are being created to signal skills.
By “alternative providers,” The Economist clearly has in mind companies like LinkedIn, Pluralsight, Udacity, EdX, and other big learning providers that are mentioned throughout the report. Other than references to the role that unions may play, trade and professional associations are missing from the report. I’ve lamented similar absences in other places and will again note that the sector and its leaders seem to be doing a poor job of establishing their place in this critical conversation.
Nonetheless, the vital role that associations can and do play is undeniable. Arguably, they are the very heart of the “new ecosystem for connecting employment and education.” Few other institutions have the same potential for staying connected to employees throughout their career as new technology emerges and job requirements change. Whether associations fully embrace this critical role in the third sector of education remains to be seen, but clearly there is an economic imperative, and clearly there is an opportunity.
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