Lifelong Learning

The January 14-20, 2017 issue of The Economist includes a special report on the topic of lifelong learning. The writers note that lifelong learning today mainly benefits high achievers and likely leads to increased inequality. The classic model of education that provides many years of learning during youth, supplemented by training at work, is breaking down. In fact, on-the-job training in the U.S. is shrinking, and more and more people doubt that a four-year degree is worth the cost. During the 19th and 20th centuries, countries worldwide saw major improvements in education. The Economist argues that we should seek similar breakthroughs today.

The writers note that while many believe that more formal education is the solution to finding a job in our technologically-advancing society, the reality is somewhat different. From 1982-2001, Americans with bachelor’s degrees saw a 31% increase in their average wages. However, during the next 12 years, bachelor’s graduate salaries decreased by more than for those with high school degrees. Furthermore, Canadian economists published a paper in 2013 showing that the share of high-skilled jobs has decreased in America since 2000, causing college graduates to displace less-educated workers for jobs less cognitively demanding. Technology forces change and, in many occupations, acquiring new job skills has become necessary as traditional ones have lost relevance.

Corporations are looking to human resources to develop learners for jobs yet to be invented. Investments in micro-, nano- and traditional degrees are increasing for employees identified as lifelong learners. New technologies enable people to be more aware of their thought processes, while learning which translate to be able to acquire new skills throughout their lengthy career.

One of the articles I found particularly interesting is, “Pathway dependency….how to turn a qualification into a salary.” Years ago, students attended college thinking that somehow a degree would lead to a job offer better than they could have received after high school. Today, the standard practice of most employers is to seek specific experience before they will hire an entry-level candidate. Whether it’s the fault of the educator or the employer, there is a need for career pathways.

Some countries traditionally offer vocational education. While one-third to one-half of later-stage secondary students in Europe are on a vocational path, the U.S., in contrast, lacks a formal vocational education tradition. Coding bootcamps and nanodegrees are sample pathways recently created in the U.S. to lead those graduates to jobs since those specialized programs were created with employer feedback. While vocational programs may help with that initial job, technology continues to eliminate many jobs and people who continually move between jobs  may need help at reskilling or adjusting to the new position. In fact, a 2015 Hoover Institution study found that workers with a vocational education are more likely to withdraw from the workforce as they age because of a reluctance or inability to retrain.

Large companies may be able to offer their employees internal pathways to reskilling, but many workers will need outside assistance to decide what route to take. Counseling is one area likely to see increased demand. LinkedIn provides data to its members about jobs and, with the purchase of Lynda.com, it also offers low-cost courses.

Lifelong learning is not something that will easily end income inequality. In fact, it may increase the disparity. The Economist writers think that unions may become more important in a world of increasing self-employment. Collective bargaining agreements will likely see more rights to paid leave for training. Governments may also get into the reskilling act and Singapore’s Skills-Future initiative is cited as one that appears to be working well.

I’m not surprised by anything I read in this report. If I had funding from an education foundation, I would send a reprint to every college president and board member in America. The report is fairly short and succinct, but bluntly honest about how the approach to learning has to change if colleges and employers are to prepare students and workers for a future that will involve frequent reskilling and a lifelong learning pathway for success.

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