In 2016, the Journal of Business published a report examining the calculus of what’s being called a “worker shortage”; across the United States, businesses are reporting that they have more open positions than they’re able to fill.
But the author of this report argues that what we’re experiencing is not a shortage of labor. Rather, we’re experiencing a shortage of skilled labor. A significant number of individuals are entering the workforce without the necessary skills for jobs across the board—from up-and-coming roles in technology (AI architects, developers, data scientists, network and security administrators) to more familiar positions in “low-tech” sectors (health services, hospitality, manufacturing, construction, transportation, warehousing).
How is this possible?
The tech sector continues to produce new jobs, and the demand for talent is more than what’s generally being supplied by universities. In low-tech sectors, technology in the workplace has made the future of many jobs uncertain, leading to fewer people learning the trade and fewer people entering the job market with those skills.
As a result, a wide range of businesses are having to invest more in employee training, creating an “economic wedge”—the difference between the wage an employee receives and the amount an employer pays for that work.
It’s easy to trace the effects of this gap: stagnant wages, lowered productivity, increased uncertainty for businesses and individuals as the supply and demand for skilled labor continues to be so disrupted. But what’s the solution? How do we bridge this skills gap? Who’s going to pay for it?
The answers lie in learning new ways to learn—in reimagining the way we educate, train, and generally prepare individuals for the workforce. For this to work, it ultimately needs to be a collaborative effort between employers and higher education.
Developing a curriculum for employment
Even the best institutions often stop short of teaching students how to apply the knowledge they’ve developed in college to the “real world.” Hands-on learning is typically reserved for the employer.
This makes sense. Educators have mostly theoretical expertise, while employers have the practical experience. But what if these separate strengths were combined? What if educators—professionals trained to support learning and personal development—collaborated with the employers who know exactly what skills are necessary to be employable right out of college?
This is not a new concept. Businesses have been working with schools throughout history. Trade schools do this, as do medical schools and some business schools. But there’s potential for any subject department in colleges to partner with organizations to develop robust employment preparation curricula—something more intensive and standardized than an internship that could ensure students are qualified to start working in a given industry immediately after graduation.
Beyond the positive social impact, this suggestion offers a realistic return on investment. Colleges could take on some or all of the financial responsibility for these courses, and in turn gain a competitive advantage over other schools that don’t offer the same employer partnerships. Students would also benefit from the pipeline to employment. Even if the cost of these courses is reflected in tuition, guaranteed employment upon graduation could offset those costs. And businesses would benefit from a sustainable supply of skilled labor, employable right out of college.
But then what happens after this? How do we help the existing workforce, those who have found employment, adapt to changes in the workforce and stay employed?
A new learning curve: Train, work, re-skill, repeat
Because the workforce—every workforce—is evolving at such a rapid rate under the influence of new technologies, it’s essential that businesses and employees keep up.
For businesses, this means integrating the latest technology. AI and automation have now become ubiquitous in factories and warehouses around the world. For individuals, keeping up with innovation means being able to adapt, and this adaptation requires education, training, re-skilling.
In the past, when technological advancement kept a more modest pace, it was possible to learn a skill or trade and be prepared for a lifetime of work. On-the-job training was generally sufficient to keep up with changes in the workplace. But progress begets progress, and innovation is now occurring at near-exponential rates. With the nature of work advancing so rapidly, we can no longer rely on static skillsets. We need dynamic learning models that allow us to refresh our skills, expand our capabilities, and deepen our expertise.
Heather McGowan, a pioneering mind and leader in this new learning movement, visualizes this concept well. If the old way of working encouraged a development bell-curve, the future demands a sine wave: Rather than build a set of skills and have them plateau at the high point of a career, McGowan argues that we need to be learning and applying new skills throughout our lifetimes. Learning needs to be cyclical, continuous, infinitely adaptive.
As changes in work continue to demand changes in skills, the most successful employees will be those who re-evaluate their skillsets every few years, who are constantly oscillating between periods of development and application. And the most successful businesses will be those supporting these efforts.
How can organizations encourage constant learning?
Crowdsourcing with Topcoder
Topcoder is a crowdsourcing platform where businesses post challenges, and a community of designers, developers, engineers, and data scientists compete to find the best solution (and win the associated prize money).
Businesses use Topcoder because it allows them to connect with top talent, even in very specialized or up-and-coming subject areas. The platform also helps members develop these skills, increasing and sustaining the talent pool. Coding boot camps supplement formal, classroom learning and providing access to learning resources for non-traditional students. Members can then apply these skills to solve real challenges posted by businesses.
As members build their skills and demonstrate their proficiency, Topcoder quantifies their progress. In addition to the project-based work on the platform, businesses have started hiring top-ranking members for long-term positions. The platform thus serves as a training ground where members are continuously learning new skills and applying them in a professional setting.
At Wipro, we worked with Topcoder to develop our own internal crowdsourcing platform, Top Gear. It works like Topcoder, only all the members (more than 30,000) are employees of Wipro. Through this program, we’ve been able to increase workplace collaboration by posing challenges to our global community of employee members, and encouraging a shift from “push” to “pull” models of work: rather than push employees to perform certain tasks, restricting which of their skills are leveraged and how, pull models of work encourage employees to contribute to projects that fit their interests, expertise, and availability.
The flexibility of this approach allows individuals to demonstrate the full range of their skills and develop them by contributing to projects they may not have been asked to work on otherwise. And due to the highly collaborative nature of crowdsourcing, employees have the opportunity to learn from each other—to be mentored by more senior or experienced coworkers, and review their work and learn from their processes.
Topcoder can thus function as an internship program. Educators can help students apply what they’re learning in class to solve challenges posted to Topcoder. Because the challenges are real project challenges posted by real companies, students get a sense of the kinds of projects they’ll work on in their careers and how to approach them. The platform also makes practical learning flexible, so even students with tight schedules can benefit from the experience of an internship. This flexibility makes Topcoder equally valuable for individuals who have already joined the workforce and are looking to change careers or re-skill.
Topcoder democratizes the internship model, making it possible for any individual at any stage of their career to acquire and learn to apply new skills.
Internal professional development initiatives
More and more, professionals are expected to be knowledgeable of all aspects of a business. An employee may be an expert in a specific field, but employers—and clients—also expect a broad skillset, or the ability to apply one’s expertise to meet a range of demands.
One way organizations are encouraging this in their employees is through continuing education initiatives aimed at re-skilling and up-skilling existing employees.
Wipro’s new PRiSM program, for example, combines classroom and on-site learning to prepare long-time employees from non-business roles to transfer to sales positions. Candidates are nominated by their supervisors, and, once accepted into the program, attend classes where they learn to leverage their experience and existing knowledge for conversations with new and diverse client audiences. With this foundation in place, each PRiSM member is given an assignment working alongside members of a sales team. Performance on this assignment is evaluated, and, when ready, employees are guided into pre- or full-sales positions.
The program was inspired by a desire to provide clients with a better understanding of Wipro, and to provide employees more opportunities for growth. By equipping more employees with the ability to speak to Wipro’s offerings and capabilities, we created more knowledgeable, versatile teams, each improving customer experience and increasing opportunities for sales. At the same time, experienced individuals have new opportunities to grow their skills and develop their careers within the company.
Success: Educators and employers working together
Collaboration between business leaders and higher education can strengthen initiatives like PRiSM, by supporting the practical, on-site learning with the structure and accreditation of formal learning.
For example: Back in 2014, AT&T and Georgia Tech partnered with the education company Udacity to launch the first fully online Master of Science degree program in computer science from an accredited university. Six years later, the program is still going strong. The program’s website advertises over 8,500 students enrolled, and students and business leaders are constantly praising the program for providing affordable paths to employment, and a network of talent to address the increasing demands of emerging technologies.
Again, this is not a new concept. Apprenticeships have been present throughout history, and have been instrumental in transitioning workforces through revolution of industry. Some experts argue that we are on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—a technological revolution. For this reason, we can benefit from reviewing the workforce preparation efforts of the past, and exploring ways to update them for today, taking advantage of today’s capabilities—artificial intelligence, dynamic learning models, digital and remote communications.
Going forward, as technology continues to change the way we live and work, the ability to learn and adapt will become more and more essential. A collaborative effort between educators and employers will help us catch up with progress, and greater support for lifelong learning will ensure we never fall behind.
To learn more about how your organization can support a stronger, smarter workforce, click here.