Upskilling 2.0: The Rise of Working Learners and Learning Workers

Posted by Des Sinkevich on April 11, 2019

The concept that a four-year university degree is the only path that leads to meaningful, lucrative employment is outdated. In many ways, it's an ideal that can't keep pace with the swift technological advancement that is impacting employers and workers in a variety of industries. Employers struggle to find trained talent to fill skilled or middle-skilled roles. Workers, many of whom rely on steady employment and income, can't afford to take time from that work to learn in a classroom setting, let alone pay the exorbitant tuition of colleges and universities. And, if they do take that time, the degree earned doesn't necessarily provide them with the skills that employers look for, leaving many workers underemployed at best.

Those who've followed the prescribed post-secondary path, ending in a four-year degree, are navigating an unbalanced workforce, with a growing skills gap leaving a disparity between available jobs and those qualified to fill them. Struggling to find the well-paying opportunities that a traditional education system promised, many find themselves returning to technical schools and apprenticeships that have a clearer outcome: meaningful employment after completion. This shift from outdated ideals to practical and actionable solutions is shaping a democratized educational landscape that is built for working learners and learning workers, emphasizing competency-based assessments and credentialing.

This shift isn't new. Employers and industry leaders have been aware of the need to offer more flexible, online education options to grow a competent and skilled workforce for years. The recent report, "Shift Happens 2," co-authored by Dr. Merrilea Mayo, Director of Mayo Enterprises and Jamai Bliven, CEO of Innovate+Educate, offers a comprehensive overview of the changes in the learning-to-employment landscape over the last few years and the impact it's had on online education.

A dramatic increase in the number of working learners

Online learning has seen tremendous growth, an increase of about 520% in the last ten years, in response to the changing needs of learners and employers. Stagnation in viable opportunities for the middle-class has given rise to the "working learner."

Working learners are those that work a minimum of at least 20 hours per week, while also taking classes. While many attempt to pursue higher education while working to offset the burden of tuition, a traditional system doesn't support the scheduling needs of students who must work to afford school while simultaneously having financial responsibilities such as caring for a family or paying bills.

In fact, 54-71% of students dropping out of college do so in order to keep their day job. And of those that drop out, roughly 40% return to continue their education.

Those workers who don't have the opportunity to return to school tend to be burdened by the tuition debt they accumulated in the short time they were enrolled, putting them even further behind their peers.

The solution to the increasing dropout rates? A non-traditional structure.

"Working learners," write Mayo and Blivin, "need classes that can be flexibly scheduled around work, preferably classes that are on demand."

Online education and workforce training programs are an increasingly necessary option for the learner who cannot sacrifice hours on the job for a degree. And, for employers offering pathways to opportunity to their employees, upskilled workers can positively impact company retention rates and provide a pool of learned leaders who can build out an outcomes-driven team.

Besides rigid course structure, the format of traditional two and four-year college degree programs comes with a hefty bill. The staggering costs of a traditional degree can leave workers unable to even consider pursuing a higher level of education, causing them to stagnate in a lower-paying position with little to no opportunity for advancement. The development of the "learning worker" is set to change that pattern.

Learning workers are shifting away from traditional degrees

Similar to working learners, these students are those who hold a job while also attempting to further their education. The difference? Learning workers are full-time employees who pursue smaller blocks of education in order to advance in their current career or move on to a new one. The demand for upskilling and training courses that provide workers with an opportunity for job mobility has caused a shift toward credentialing and certification programs that can provide industry relevant skills over a four-year degree.

Offering laser-focused snippets of job-specific knowledge with no set schedule for completion, non-traditional online education companies allow the learner to build a skill set fine-tuned to a particular career path. Employers investing in upskilling their workforce also reap the benefits, keeping skilled employees on for longer and reducing incessant turnover.

Success isn't, then, as much about graduating, a term which comes with a certain pomp and circumstance, but more about completion. Graduation, to learners occupied with work, home life, and financial responsibilities, can feel a more daunting, far-off goal. Completion, however, while essentially meaning the same thing, can make more sense to employees who have a very specific goal in mind: rising up at work. By completing relevant coursework, the learner earns a credential that can directly lead to gainful employment or upward mobility in the workforce.

A shift in mindset is beneficial to your bottom line

Most researchers estimate that employee turnover and replacement can cost a company over 30% of the wages that would have been paid. The cost of training employees, however, is only about 10% of the wages employers would have paid. When employers have vacant positions they're struggling to fill, studies show that the cost of one worker leaving an organization is around $25,000. For those who continue to emphasize an outdated and inaccurate measurement of employee skill and potential in the hiring process-the mindset that only four-year degree holders from traditional universities will be able to fill an open position-the costs of vacant jobs will be exponential.

Companies that are open to a new world of work and interested in adapting their processes to accommodate the future will see long-range benefits of upskilling employees. Though the cost of training current employees is minimal compared to hiring new employees with the skills you need, there are other benefits for companies that upskill than just the effect on their bottom line.

Smart employers that offer upskilling options to employees build a positive work environment that gives employees confidence in the company and leads to higher levels of productivity. Engaged employees who like the work they do and the company they work for are also more likely to "bring more brainpower and creativity to their daily tasks." Further, those engaged employees are five times less likely to leave your organization of their own volition, saving money on recruitment costs.

Investing in upskilling and workforce development isn't a new idea, but we're still in the midst of a shift from the old ways of measuring talent to this new future of work. Being ahead of the curve will not only benefit your employees, it prepares the company as whole for success. Trained employees are confident in their employer, their work, and engaged in ensuring the company succeeds. They, too, are invested in improving the bottom line and that personal investment from engaged workers can help organizations outperform competitors who don't engage their employees by 202%.

The move toward shorter-form, skills-based certification and credentialing that offers practical training is one of the first steps toward a workforce of the future, one that's prepared to meet the hiring demands in expanding middle-skilled industries. As employers make a shift toward a new understanding of education and training, so should educational institutions.

"By making these shifts," writes Penn Foster CEO, Frank Britt, in response to Mayo and Blivin's recent work, "educational institutions can increase return on investment for learners, who, as the authors point out, are largely looking to enter the workforce more quickly after high school and gain job-focused skills and credentials while working."

Ready to make a shift in your workforce development and training? Penn Foster offers an array of digital and blended learner programs that attract, upskill, and retain workers in America's fastest-growing fields and professions. Contact us today for a complimentary ROI assessment and quantify the value of shifting your mindset on career training for your employees.

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