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Skills-Based Workforce Development: Three Bold Steps We Need to Take as a Nation

Co-authored by Julian L. Alssid and Kaitlin LeMoine


students in a computer classroom

Workforce development is having a moment. Jobs can’t be filled, the tech sector has experienced massive layoffs, the value of higher ed enrollment is in question, employers and institutions are increasingly focused on a skill-based approach to hiring and learning, and the government seeks to keep pace and put Americans to work. Simultaneously, AI advancements abound and are rapidly changing the world of work. This is a complicated landscape for those of us who have dedicated our careers to better aligning work and learning for all, and now is the time to re-examine how we got here and the bold steps we need to take as a nation to meet this moment.

Education and training systems in this country have largely functioned on two separate tracks: an academic track and a vocational track. The systems were built to serve different audiences with distinct knowledge and skills needs. Colleges acted as academic institutions preparing well-rounded citizens and training providers offered programs that taught skills and content for targeted jobs in particular industries. For many years, both tracks offered paths to the middle class with strong earning potential.

This all changed in the last four decades, when the traditional U.S. manufacturing sector began to shrink, service-providing jobs grew, and technology proliferated across industries. This shift in the economy led to a demand for workers with an increasingly complex mix of interdisciplinary skills and knowledge areas. Unfortunately, our education and training institutions struggled to adapt to the changing economic landscape. Training providers focused on getting people jobs quickly, without considering their students’ long-term career prospects. Employers began to complain that college graduates lacked skills needed to perform in the workplace, and the earnings chasm between skilled and unskilled workers continued to widen.

And now we find ourselves in a moment where the hard divides between education, training, and work are softening. Colleges and universities are focused on implementing innovative models to graduate learners with in-demand skills, as detailed in Delivering on the Degree: The College to Jobs Playbook developed by the Project on Workforce at Harvard. Major training organizations, such as Goodwill Industries International, are partnering with major employers including Google to develop programs that equip learners for in-demand jobs with long-term career prospects. Skills-based hiring is all the rage with employers such as Boeing, Walmart, IBM, the federal government and numerous states (e.g. Colorado, Utah, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Virginia). We also know a lot about the skills needed to be successful in the 21st century workplace, with groups such as The Burning Glass Institute and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce identifying the transportable and desired skills sought by employers across many jobs and industries.

We recognize that as we write this, the impacts of artificial intelligence on education and the workplace are just in their infancy. According to a recent Goldman Sachs study, as many as 300 million jobs are at risk of being replaced or altered due to generative AI, including two-thirds of the jobs in the U.S. and Europe, making the emphasis on advanced and integrated skill development even more critical to the success of the current and future workforce. Early indications also suggest that the bar for entry level positions will continue to rise as AI takes on more advanced tasks as noted by Ryan Craig in Gap Letter.

So what happens next? What does it look like for higher education institutions, training providers, and employers to jointly prepare for what’s ahead? Ultimately, we believe that emerging skills-centric models, such as those cited above, need to drive how we all do business and become the rule rather than the exception. We recommend the following:

  • All Employers, educational providers (pre-k to college), and training providers need to commit to shift to a skills-based approach to teaching, learning, training, hiring, and promoting. To do this, colleges and training providers, in partnership with industry, will need to effectively integrate academic, technical, and professional skills into learning experiences in order to maximize career prospects for all learners.

  • Corporate leaders, policy makers, and foundations need to provide policies, resources and funding to ensure that the proper scaffolding is in place to support this effort. For example, a common skills taxonomy (such as the U.S. Department of Labor's long-standing O*NET data sets and those in development by Open Skills Network and others) needs to be widely adopted to support the development of job descriptions and curriculum, and provide guidance to all learners. Ideally, a public/private-led skills initiative will track, mine, and update the taxonomy rapidly so that learners can end up in good jobs as the economy shifts. This group will also be responsible for developing scalable approaches to skill assessment and validation.

  • Employers, colleges, training providers, and elected officials of all political stripes need to endorse and communicate what is meant by a skills-centric approach in education and career. All Americans need to understand and teach their kids that skills are a valuable currency that we develop in work, play, and formal learning. Future generations will ideally be able to identify and track their skills across education and work experiences, ensuring long-term success and well-being.

We have the foundation in place. Now is the time to face the reality that all jobs require a blend of academic and vocational skills and commit to the development of a single, coherent, skills-based workforce development system that is equitable for all. We must do this in order to meet this moment.

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