Transitioning from a World of Won and Done Workforce Development to Frequent Reskilling

The future of work was a prime topic at the Davos World Economic Forum Annual Meeting last week, greeted with a mix of optimism and concern for the dramatic shifts expected due to accelerating technological advancements.  On one hand, these advancements promise to replace many low skill, low paying jobs with higher skill, higher paying jobs fundamentally more rewarding to individuals and more valuable to the economy.  On the other hand, rapid change will require many workers to reskill, possibly at multiple points in their careers, placing strain on both individuals and workforce development systems.  Our culture and our institutions are not yet wired for this new normal.

A critical challenge in preparing for the future of work is that the United States lacks robust reskilling mechanisms for working adults.  Working adults have fundamentally different learning needs than school age children and higher education students with limited work experience.  They have limited time with significantly more financial responsibilities.  Most adults reskilling in the future will do so while holding a full-time job and/or supporting a family.   

At a high level, a world in which frequent reskilling is the norm requires training programs that are 1) aligned and responsive to employer needs, 2) designed for adult learning styles, 3) delivered in an easily accessible format, and 4) financed with a mix of investments from public and private leaders and workers themselves.

In regard to points 3 and 4, Governor Jerry Brown’s support for a large scale online community college holds promise.  The Governor has proposed $100 million to start the online college and $20 million per year to fund it on an ongoing basis in his budget.  The online platform is unique in that it will offer short-term sub-associate degree and credential programs aligned to growing industries, such as healthcare and advanced manufacturing. This format is designed be more accessible to working adults, primarily by eliminating the additional time to commute to campus and cutting time to acquire workforce ready skills.  It will also be significantly cheaper than private institution alternatives.  

The challenge is in the implementation of points 1 and 2.  Aligning programs with employer needs and updating them in a fast-paced world has never been a straightforward path for workforce development program designers.  Public workforce development programs report mixed results in terms of increasing employability and wages.  Furthermore, while online learning formats can be effective when designed appropriately, technical training can be better suited for a classroom where students can learn hands on, with the opportunity to interact with peers and professors.  The leadership team plans to track and publicly report outcomes, i.e. wage gains and employability.  Whether or not an online college can achieve strong outcomes remains to be seen.

The need to invest in new workforce training models for working adults, such as the online community college, raises the question of how they will be funded.  The cost of reskilling is not simply the cost of training, but also the cost of living expenses in cases where workers are displaced or must leave work to train for a new job.  In many cases, the cost of reskilling will be paid through a mix of employer funds, public sector funds, and workers themselves, as the expense is often too significant for any one party to pay in total.  Public funding schemes, if carefully designed, can serve as an incentive for employer and workforce intermediary investments to support needed training, or supplement above what private sector and workers can reasonably pay.  Options for public financing that frequently come up in the discourse include:

Robot Taxes: A “robot tax” on automation technology would generate public funds to retrain workers, as well as increase the cost of these technologies, thereby preventing employers from buying robots too quickly, leading to a spike in the unemployment rate.  Bill Gates has publicly advocated for this policy to allow society to catch up with the pace of technological change.  Working sessions for a robot tax have convened in San Francisco.

Publicly Funded Training Credits: As an example, Singapore provides a SkillsFuture credit to its citizens to pay for out-of-pocket course fees for attending work-skills related courses.  This system removes the financial barrier to enrolling in training, but it is unclear if it effectively steers people to job relevant training courses that translates to jobs.

Universal Basic Income: Rather than navigating a costly and complex government benefit system, the Universal Basic Income provides everyone with a basic living wage.  Finland is currently running this system as an experimental pilot for 2,000 individuals who are unemployed.   This option is frequently critiqued for being too fiscally costly and a disincentive for individuals to train for new jobs.  While Universal Basic Income is not politically viable in the foreseeable future, it will likely continue to be a part of reskilling discussions.

The transition to a world where frequent reskilling is the norm will require new models, new funding schemes, and collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders.  While the reasons to be optimistic about the benefits of new technologies are many, the need to rethink and reconfigure workforce development delivery to adapt is a heavy lift. As a Coalition, we will continue to look for opportunities to support initiatives like the cybersecurity pilot program for working adults at CSUDH to keep moving the region forward.