Ulrik Juul Christensen
A recent graduate enters the workforce for the first time with a basic set of skills and the ability to learn. Having a degree to get a job is only the starting point. Learning must now continue for a lifetime, with continuous upskilling.
This approach is not only good for the employee, it’s also a competitive advantage for the employer in the new normal, post-Covid-19. In fact, so much value is placed on continuous skill-building, the employer puts in place programs that provide meaningful, personalized education to ensure workers are equipped to perform the work that must be done now — and in the Fourth Industrial Revolution as greater inroads continue to be made by robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).
What might sound idealistic or even futuristic is currently happening and must become more widespread. Simon Nelson, CEO of UK-based FutureLearn that partners with universities to provide massive open online courses (MOOCs), has observed that a “range of new skills that are in high demand” are part of the driving forces behind continuous upskilling.
Indeed, the matter of learning is so urgent, it’s a C-suite issue, according to BCG Group. In the past, companies relied on positional advantage, which encompassed everything from the price and quality their products to recruiting the best people. More recently, the competitive edge was found in an “adaptive advantage,” such as agility, innovation, adapting quickly to a changing marketplace, Now, BCG observed, “another basis of competition has risen above them all in the digital age: learning advantage.”Recommended For You
A New Wave of Corporate Learning
One way to accelerate and support learning is with continuous upskilling. A key component is micro-certification, which is best thought of as learning that happens in smaller “chunks” — such as bootcamp training, an online course from a university or other provider, or even an apprenticeship. When competency in a specific knowledge area or skill is demonstrated, a micro-certification is issued, which can be listed on a resume or displayed as a “badge” or a mastery credit on an online profile. Over time, individuals can amass portfolios of competencies that characterize their capabilities in a way that is much more relevant to their professional lives than relying solely on academic credentials.
An example is training from VEJ-EU, the Danish roadwork education center. In Denmark, all workers, from engineers to manual laborers, must be certified in roadway safety. To ensure everyone can become competent, instruction is now delivered via personalized e-learning. Those who have already mastered the material can move ahead; others who need additional resources receive support. After the “pre-work” online, learning shifts to role-playing and exercises to apply what’s been learned. Thanks to personalization to meet every learner where they are and build competency, the pass rate for achieving certification is virtually 100 percent.
More Than Technical Skills
While skill-building usually brings to mind technological capabilities, that is too narrow a view. As Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, has stated, 21st century skills include collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.
This points to a “bottom-line question” for employers, according to Josh Bersin in a Deloitte report on “The 21st Century Career”: How to “build career models that encourage continuous learning, improve individual mobility, and foster a growth mind-set in every employee, year after year?”
Before the pandemic, when unemployment was below 4%, large companies facing talent shortages often hired people who lacked specific skills but were capable of learning. Now, with unemployment in double-digits, reskilling remains important, but for another reason: to ensure workers have the skills that can help companies moving forward. As the authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article noted, “Today, we believe this need is no longer just a recommendation, but a necessary step to economic recovery.”
Beyond the Resume
When professionals market themselves to a prospective employer, they typically display their current and past jobs, whether on a resume or LinkedIn. What this fails to showcase, however, is all that they’ve learned — beyond whatever degree they hold — and, more important, what they are capable of learning. In other words, the missing pieces are the mastery they have achieved thus far and their potential to be trained and developed in new areas.
Micro-credentialing could fill this gap with a real-time record of capabilities, as well as evidence of a learning mindset and a desire to grow. A corollary to this approach can be found in the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), which takes a novel approach with leading high schools in the U.S. and globally. MTC, of which I am a former board member, seeks to motivate students to become engaged learners, while developing the knowledge and skills needed to take on challenges and opportunities throughout their lives. This is a far more holistic approach to showing who students are than SAT scores.
As an employer, I am interested in people’s skills and accomplishments, both professional and personal, as a proxy for a fuller view of their capabilities. In fact, I make it a point to ask employees and job candidates what they do outside of work. I listen for what activities engage them, whether it’s sailing, sports, an artistic endeavor, or community work. A broad range of activities and interests can demonstrate qualities such as tenacity, problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as social awareness and engagement. As I’ve found, people who are genuinely interested in the world are more likely to be lifelong learners who distinguish themselves by having a “growth mindset,” as defined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck.
Intrinsically motivated, lifelong learners influence the projects that they take on and the problems they solve. Human curiosity plays an important role to encourage exploration and learning. All too often, though, corporate environments in which there is a perceived protocol of how things have always been done can squelch curiosity. Now, as organizations strive to reinvent and transform themselves, curiosity and a growth mindset will become more highly valued.
The Value of Being Human
Rather than focusing so much attention on computers that can learn or on AI and robotics taking over lower-level jobs, greater emphasis needs to be placed on upskilling individuals. Humans will continue to have key roles because of their unique cognitive and physical abilities. Indeed, when they are freed up from low-skilled jobs, humans can be trained to engage in more challenging and intellectually satisfying work.
As humans, our innate ability to learn makes life satisfying. The more companies tap into that desire, providing meaningful training that meets people where they are with the skills they need to acquire, the more rewarding it will be for all involved.