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Reorienting work and learning around skills building

Harvard Business School Professors Bill Kerr and Joe Fuller talk to leaders grappling with the forces reshaping the nature of work in their Harvard Business School podcast, Managing the Future of Work.

As work life morphs into an expanding series of limited engagements, education and training need to be retooled for the long haul. Michelle talks about how the sector needs to do a better job of accommodating the demands of the workplace and the realities of workers’ lives.


Joe Fuller: Businesses, workers, and educators have seen traditional skills-development models fail to meet the demands of new technologies, globalization, and changing workforce demographics. Covid-19 has telescoped the timelines around many of those trends and added a new urgency to the imperative for workforce development and upskilling. How can students aspiring to join the workforce soon and incumbent workers keep pace with changing job requirements? What changes are required to the workforce development and education systems to ensure that workers have the opportunity to achieve that goal? What role should employers play in bringing about the need to change, and what has Covid-19 revealed about the challenges ahead? Welcome to the Managing the Future of Work podcast, I’m your host, Harvard Business School Professor and Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Joe Fuller. Michelle Weise, author of the new book Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet, joins me to discuss the structural shifts redefining work, the need for transferable skills, and the role educators, businesses, and disruptive new entrants can play in reshaping America’s skill system. Hi Michelle, and welcome to the Managing the Future of Work podcast. Michelle Weise: Thanks for having me, Joe. Fuller: Michelle, you’ve got a new book out, Long Life Learning:–it’s called–Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet. You draw on a very rich and diverse background in preparing to write this book. Maybe you could share some of that with our listeners. Weise: Sure. I don’t think I have a typical route into the skills and workforce training space. I used to, actually, be an English professor at Skidmore College. After I left academia, I actually started this work, really looking at people’s transitions from education to different careers. And so I started off that work looking at service members and how they were trying to exit the military and make smoother transitions into things outside of just policing and security things that they could only imagine as the next thing given their past experience. So that was my first foray into helping learners imagine more ambitious pathways for themselves that maybe didn’t relate so closely to what they did in the past. And then I got to work with Clayton Christensen, and from there, I did a lot of work in the innovation space. So I was the chief innovation officer for Southern New Hampshire University and Strada Education Network, and now I’m with Imaginable Futures. Fuller: Obviously, embedded in the title is this notion of the need for people to learn continuously across their lives, the growing need for people who have ended their traditional educational experience to find new platforms and new resources to advance their learning to be able to sustain employment and a decent lifestyle. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about that problem and how fit for purpose our current system is to support the needs of people who already have gone through the traditional education course of study? Weise: It wasn’t until I actually left academia that I realized how some of those important skills that we were developing while learners were engaged in a research-based, like a 20-page research-based argument on this piece of poetry. It was only until I left that I saw how I could be more explicit about translating those skills into the language of the labor market. We have these various language barriers in our ecosystem, where job seekers really struggle to translate their skills into things that sound marketable. Then employers really have a hard time sorting through all these different proxies for skills and capabilities. And then learning providers have their very own system of thinking about learning objectives and the way they believe that they are preparing for the workforce. But there’s obviously a kind of disconnect, where business leaders don’t necessarily agree that they’re getting the talent that they need. This book is really trying to show that there are ways forward, if we can actually start aligning around a shared agenda—that the current set of systems is leaving too many people behind, and the way to engage in the future requires just a very different kind of change in behavior. Fuller: Let’s talk about the different parts of the system and what role you see they might play in the future. If we start with colleges and universities, it strikes me that we, as a society in the United States, have a bit of a schizophrenic perspective of them. On the one hand, particularly highly selective institutions are celebrated as the beautifully paved road to a great future, great income, and the cultivation of skills that would equip people for what the future holds in terms of work. But by the same token, [there is an] increasing chorus of criticism that it’s too expensive, disengaged from employment. Employers, as you know, regularly are pretty critical of the level of preparation that even college graduates have when they come in the workforce. What’s their role in the future, and are there any role models that you think pop out as institutions that are getting it more right than wrong? Weise: We know that technology has changed the game in terms of moving from a content delivery system to more of a problem-solving environment. We’re not actually really changing the fundamental structures within academia to meet that more uncertain world of work ahead. Interestingly enough, engineering schools, where, because of the need to entice more minority learners, as well as women into engineering programs, fully redesigned some of their programs to be revolving around grand challenges. As an example—this is something that came out of the National Academies of Engineering—so they’re trying to get people immersed in problems that they want to solve, like how to capture solar energy more efficiently. And in the process of solving those problems, that’s when they learn all the principles of engineering. There are other schools that are employing more design-thinking freshmen courses to get folks into the same engineering mindset. It really should be more of the case that we see the breakdown of disciplinary silos so that people can actually engage in this kind of, more what the design school at Stanford calls “purpose learning.” If we get people engaged in solving for poverty or trying to understand how you measure curiosity, you can still do the same learning of different disciplines, but it’s more contextualized. Unfortunately, it is not happening at system-wide level, despite the fact that we’ve known for quite some time that we don’t need to be about delivering content in higher ed. Fuller: You, of course, mentioned your work with my friend and colleague Clayton Christensen. In the book, you talk about the potential for disruption in the sector. Of course, the type of system you’re describing is one that would classically be described as “ripe for disruption.” Where do you see disruption happening now? As you think forward, what type of offers or interventions do you think really have a prospect of changing the outcomes for more people? Weise: You see a lot of folks who are trying to simply translate what they were doing in person, in the classroom, into an online experience and not really rethinking wholesale what we’re actually trying to do. So the kind of disruptive entrants that we’ve seen as really interesting are these kinds of on-ramp programs that I talk about in the book. These are actually geared toward the bottom quartile of our labor market, for folks who maybe only have a high school degree. It gives them this human skills training, those softer skills that we like to talk about, and it gives them disciplinary skills in cybersecurity or health care or advanced manufacturing and gets them into a much better first job that isn’t a dead-end job, but actually has career mobility built into them. So we’ve seen folks like Per Scholas and JVS and Techtonic and i.c.stars, LaunchCode—these really interesting models that are emerging on the edges—that are right now maybe not reaching as many learners as we would hope for. But if we start looking toward those more short-burst, immersive programs, that is really the model we need to be invested more in, as we think about the need for more continuous returns to learning. We don’t have a great infrastructure set up to make it more seamless for us to take these on and off ramps, in and out of learning and work. Fuller: One thing that we’ve certainly encountered in our research—looking at innovative approaches to equipping people with skills and linking businesses more tightly to the skills-development system—is that the entire surround—whether it is government funding for education or what is viewed as a legitimate credential by an employer in ranking and filtering the applicants they get—really still revolves around the traditional definition of education, the centrality of accredited institutions, and whatnot. How do we break that system sufficiently to get the type of innovators you were talking about earlier to scale effectively without throwing the baby out with the bath water, without doing so much damage to the higher-ed system along the way that we have a new set of problems? Weise: It just used to be a simpler calculus. You go get a degree, you’re on your way to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. But now we have over 4,300 universities out there that grant degrees; we have something like over 730,000 different kinds of credentials out there. When we think about better signals in the market, I think everyone likes the idea of apprenticeship programs. What people don’t quite fully understand is how small that pathway is, actually, within the United States, and how very much right now geared toward the skilled trades they are. But as we think about moving into different ways of opening talent pipelines, we know that one of the biggest opportunities to diversify the workforce is to actually remove that degree requirement and look at folks with that skills-based lens. But it’s very hard to do right now. So one of the ways to mitigate risk right now is through outsourced apprenticeship programs. So groups like Techtonic or Kenzie or i.c.stars, what they’ll do is, they’ll work directly with an employer, and they’ll put someone through their training program. Before they usher them into the labor market, the on-ramp program actually just hires that participant directly as part of their workforce. Then they start to push them out onto their different clients. So what happens is, these employer clients get to try out these learners, whom they normally wouldn’t ever give a chance. They would overlook them because they went to this community college they’ve never heard of, or they don’t even have any training beyond high school. But what they see through that outsourced apprenticeship program is, “Oh my goodness, this person can actually do everything we need them to do and is a great fit for our company.” So it really just “de-risks” that whole process. Fuller: Well, as you know, there are barriers to the interpretation of various administrative procedures that inhibit companies from doing pre-employment aptitude testing and scare them off of that path. One thing we hear about a lot in our conversations with people at HBS is this notion of the need to build transferable skills. Of course, that’s often linked to other very commonly used phrase, the dreaded “stackable credentials” and things like that. How should we be thinking about that? How can we find some ways to cause people’s experiences to be recognized as having value in the job market so that the hard work they put in and the experience they’ve gained and the skills they’ve cultivated through that are viewed by employers as a credential, just as a degree or a certificate or a license would be? Weise: This is a huge issue. We all fundamentally want to believe that there are transferable skills that you can port from one domain to another. But as all of us know—and even folks within the Harvard Business School who are getting MBAs or doctorates—it’s not easy to actually pivot from one industry to another. It’s not easy to get that chance from an employer who wants to see the exact experience there before they take a shot on you. This has always been an issue in the workforce. We don’t have ways of articulating those transferable skills and how, really, it’s only a matter of getting smart in this other thing where we can skill up, and then we’ll be fine. When the pandemic hit, and the retail and hospitality sectors were just completely decimated, what we saw was just that void, that we just did not have a way for people to understand, especially at that human workforce competencies—baseline competencies—level, the kinds of skills that would help them move from retail over into human resources, as an example. But the good news is—and I wrote a short piece on this in the Harvard Business Review to say—we actually have enough digital breadcrumbs and big data to take a look at all these different kinds of trajectories of folks moving through the labor market. And we can look at folks who used to start out in retail and see what are the exact kinds of skills that they acquired along the way in order to make these different moves outside of retail. If we look at these more idiosyncratic or anomalous pathways and understand the skills, they add up along the way. So maybe they just add in a couple of skills in payroll and benefits administration, these complementary skills. They can actually move into much better earnings opportunities in finance or HR or these different, more promising pathways ahead. But we haven’t been able to make those pathways clear to folks and more obvious and understandable. And that’s where we have a lot of work to do, in starting to take those kinds of trajectories that we can see and make them much more explicit for folks who need a path forward. What we’re doing right now—and just sort of leaving folks who are furloughed or laid off on their own to navigate this by themselves—this is not going to do. So how do we actually start to help people understand more easily through different kinds of AI-powered platforms, ways to understand what they can actually do with those skills? Fuller: How do we get employers more committed to being supportive of this effort? Because employers always want to seek people with skills and seek validation that the people ... a candidate has the skills, but they don’t seem to be interested or motivated to make the corresponding counter-investment of documenting the skills their workers have of associating those with industry recognized skills or credentials. So it’s as if the employers always want to be a beneficiary of the system, but not an investor in causing the market to work more efficiently. Weise: What we’re going to get better at, ideally in the near future, is to show how that actually you can take a look at your existing workforce and you will find if you actually leverage these different kinds of skills-based models from places like SkyHive or Future-Fit or Hitch, these different groups that are doing some of this work, you can actually look internally and understand the skill sets of your workforce. I think right now the major problem is—and if you talk to huge employers, even some of the big tech giants, they have hundreds of thousands of workers at their fingertips—but they do not know what those people can actually do. They don’t know their exact skill sets. They know their names, they know their titles, but they don’t have that finer understanding of their capabilities. But through some of these different kinds of platforms, what they’re able to do is, as people are inserting in, typing in their past experiences, these platforms are actually surfacing different kinds of competencies that people who have been in those ... being a barista or been in customers service, they can actually say, “These are actually the kinds of skills that people like you have demonstrated. Do you have these skills?” So you can start to validate, “Yeah, actually I do know how to do some accounting.” Once you have a better granular understanding of your workforce, you can start to see, “Okay, actually, if I take these 10 people and just get them some skills in data visualization, we can actually move them into these roles that we need for our future goals.” What’s fascinating is that some of these groups that are going into Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 companies, they’re seeing the real churn and the loss of resources, where these companies have laid off tens of hundreds of folks. Then what they can actually see from the people that they’ve laid off is, we really actually shouldn’t have laid off these 20 people, because they were nearly there for the strategic goals you have set for your company. They could have been skilled up. So I think that’s where this nice marriage of technology-enabled solutions can come in and help us move toward more skills-based hiring. Fuller: Certainly, something we’ve seen in some of our research in the Managing the Future Work Project is that employers have had this historic bias to—the way we describe it—to “play the spot market for labor” and always assume there is some dream candidate out there that can give them exactly what they need right now, and that they overlook those workers that have the knowledge of company context, customers, important personal relationships, just that expertise in “how we do things around here.” How do you view that category sometimes conflated with the unhappily named category of “soft skills”? But as you think about “long life learning,” how do those human skills factor in? And what can we do to cultivate those more successfully in both aspiring workers and mid-career workers? Weise: The human skills—or these more interpersonal skills, the kind of skills that we often talk about, like critical thinking, collaboration, teamwork—one of the challenges is that they are often so broad that they can encompass a lot of different things. So even if an employer talks about needing someone who has great problem-solving or communications skills, it’s not like someone can just say, “I’m a great communicator” and get a job, right? So we have this challenge of not being able to say precisely what those skills manifest as in different kinds of pathways—whether you’re going into behavioral health or PR and marketing and advertising. They look very different. It’s really come out of the trending conversations about the future of work. As computers get to be much better at certain activities, what are the human skills that we actually can deploy to remain competitive in the workforce? And so everyone talks about these human skills. The challenge is, a lot of these skills require deep practice. You can’t just do it often in a short-burst program. And this is why we need to go way back into our earliest childhood education, all the way up through K–12, to think about, how do we build these skills and cultivate these skills? I think we can see how these human skills are cultivated in programs like liberal arts education programs and these broad-based conceptual approaches. But as you think about someone who’s 45 or 55, and sees the need to transition into something new, where exactly are they going to go to broaden their human skills? This is where actually VR and AR might have real promise in letting people practice these skills in a low-stakes environment. As we think about a longer and more turbulent work life ahead of us, where are we actually going to go build these human skills? It’s not as easy as we think, and they’re not just innate within us, that we can just easily pull out. I think that’s some of the major work ahead. Fuller: What are your thoughts about how Covid is going to inform decision makers about skilling and education going forward? We’ve certainly had people say this is accelerating the use of digital tools for distance learning. It’s causing people have to hone new skills and dealing with technology, but it’s certainly also been tremendously disruptive toward traditional educational experiences into the nature of human interaction at work. Weise: A lot of the work that I was doing when I was leading Strada Institute for the Future of Work was trying to point to the fact that there were already 41 million Americans who are working-age adults who are already being left behind. And what the pandemic did was just bring that front and center, to show us how unevenly distributed the future of work is and can be, right? Like we’ve just seen, even in this kind of slight recovery that we’re seeing, it’s only benefiting the folks at the top 10 percent, right? The bulk of the job losses have happened to those who were already struggling. We have to figure out how to build more-flexible, more-seamless pathways. It’s just incumbent upon us to do that now because everything has just been shattered by this virus. Fuller: In the long term, it seems that lower-skilled workers, particularly in service industries, are likely to suffer the longest-lasting consequence of this. But we’ve also seen an asymmetric impact on women in the workforce and their employment levels. What does that tell us about the future of work in perhaps a more distributed, technologically rich environment? And what does that suggest about “long life learning” for those subpopulations? Weise: There are some who’ve called it a “she-session,” right? The folks who are having to exit the labor market in mass numbers are women who have a lot of caregiving responsibilities. Even before the pandemic—Joe, you’ve done research on this—on the care economy that all of us, the great majority of the workforce has some major caregiving responsibility that takes them away from being the most, maybe, productive worker that they could be, and we’ve hidden it from sight, right? So, how do we actually enable more flexibilities so that people don’t have to just completely end their careers in order to take on these different ebbs and flows of work? So this is a huge challenge ahead of us that, again, like as we think about being on this workforce highway and imagining these kinds of cloverleaf exchanges is, how do we make this a little bit more seamless so that we’re not just exiting completely and unable to get back on, but instead, just kind of, in the case of upskilling, we’re just getting what we need and then going back onto that highway? Or if we need to exit in order to take on more of those caregiving responsibilities, how do we do that in a way that still enables us to come back and not have lost complete momentum? Fuller: It really does suggest that a lot of the fundamental assumptions about what work looks like and how it’s organized, that have underlain the design of work and the way companies and institutions thought of it, may have to get revisited. Weise: One of the limiting factors is that all of our benefits are often tied to full-time employment. But as we think about that longer work life, there have to be more flexible work arrangements, where it’s not always going to be full-time employment. But we still need access to health care or retirement benefits. It’s fascinating, too, as you think about an older workforce and enabling them to also stay competitive and not be discriminated against. How do we actually leverage a more mature workforce for those human skills that are so desperately in demand? There is a real opportunity to maybe pair younger learners and workers with folks who have more experience and can have that larger view of the world. At the same time, as we think about an older, aging workforce, we also have to build in opportunities for some of them to unlearn some of the bad habits that they might’ve accumulated along the way, right? These are just things that we haven’t accounted for yet. Fuller: One thing that has struck me—as a dilemma underlying the more conventional phrase of “life-long learning”—is that, beyond the fact that a lot of our education system just isn’t attuned and set up to serving the needs of a mid-career adult—in terms of everything from pedagogy to what material is available and what pre-existing knowledge or expertise that it assumes—it also assumes a real desire and interest on the part of individual learners to re-engage in a traditional educational experience. To many people that find themselves on the spot, relative to their capacity to maintain their lifestyle and continue with a career on the path they’ve been following, haven’t had the benefit of the highest achievement in education. They’re not degree holders; they don’t have post-graduate degrees, obviously. Learning was not something necessarily that was their favorite part of life, something they embrace or something they look forward to returning to. Any thoughts about that? Weise: Yeah. So I’m fortunate enough to serve as an adviser to Imaginable Futures, which is a venture of the Omidyar Group. And one of the core tenets of their US strategy is focused on student parents. I think what most folks maybe don’t realize is that, in traditional higher education, one in five learners is a student parent. And we’re not talking about, like, teen parents; we’re talking about folks whose median age is 32, and they’re disproportionately people of color and folks who are coming from the lower quartile at the labor market. So these are folks who have to somehow force-fit their lives into this very rigidly linear four-year experience. Our 18- to 24-year-old population is plateauing, if not going to just fall off a cliff, in the mid-2030s. So how are these schools, these thousands of schools, going to actually pivot to meet the needs of these adult learners? It can’t be what we’re doing right now, where the onus is on the individual. Schools need to figure out how they actually make their schedules more flexible and more asynchronous, inclusive of different kinds of wraparound support services, so that folks who do have all these other responsibilities in their lives can actually advance. Fuller: Well, that would be a big transformation. One final question, Michelle. If you had your 10 minutes with President Biden, and if you could impress upon him one or two things that can be done at the federal level that you think would help unstick the system and enable “long life learning,” what comes to mind? Weise: For me, it comes down to this issue of time and time poverty, right? I think what the pandemic has shown us is that only a select few can actually afford to pay for services that give us back time. When we think about the needs to constantly upskill or retool ourselves for the future, even recover from this real hit to our economy, we always are expecting individuals to somehow find the time, on top of everything else going on in their lives, to fit in extra learning or that tuition assistance or tuition-reimbursement program on top of everything else going on in their lives. What we really need to fundamentally rethink is on-the-job training—and move it away from these huge investments in mere risk mitigation or compliance training—but really thinking about how we build skills for the next job and the next job for these folks, to think about internal mobility within the workforce. That requires time. And we have not figured out how to carve out time for some of these multimillion-dollar initiatives that are really forward-thinking and exciting from major employers. They still have not solved for, how are people actually going to find the time to do this? So the real opportunity for federal investment is to think through, how do we actually solve for intergenerational mobility by solving for this real massive issue of time poverty? Fuller: Well, Michelle Weise, thank you for joining us. And congratulations on your new book! We’re looking forward to see what’s next in your career. Weise: Thank you, Joe. Fuller:We hope you enjoy theManaging the Future of Work podcast. If you haven’t already, please subscribe and rate the show wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find out more about the Managing the Future of Work project at our website While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter.

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