How to help middle-skilled workers kickstart lifelong learning

As I scanned the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections, I jumped rather quickly to the fastest-growing occupations. I’m always interested to see if the jobs that are showing real growth reflect the current global trends that I am seeing in my day-to-day work.

I wasn’t disappointed with what I found. Of the top five fastest-growing occupations, two reflect the increasing focus on environmental sustainability: solar photo voltaic installers and wind turbine technicians. The other three are in healthcare, an industry that is booming as baby boomers age: home health aides, personal care aides and occupational therapy assistants.

The shared thread that runs through all five, though, is something I have been discussing with top talent leaders for years—”middle skills” and the importance of lifelong learning to maintain market relevance and employability. Comprising more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree, middle skills continue to be the mainstay of the U.S. economy’s job openings and represent achievable opportunities for broad talent pools.

U.S. job openings by skill level, 2014-2024

Source: The National Skills Coalition

Globally, however, the pendulum is swinging in another direction (signs indicate it may be the eventual direction in the U.S. also); the shares of low-skilled and high-skilled jobs have increased, while there has been a hollowing out of middle-skilled jobs. I don’t think this means middle skills are no longer valuable; rather, traditional middle skills are falling in value. The good news—as HR leaders, we can help our workers prepare for the more highly valuable middle skills required for jobs of the future.

See also: Why collaboration between HR and learning can close skills gaps faster

The nature of middle-skills jobs is changing. No longer are they task-based and repetitive. Instead, they require humans who can continuously learn and take on tasks that can’t be easily automated. This is a major topic of discussion in my conversations with C-suite executives. They see the challenge but haven’t quite nailed down how they will address it moving forward.

The New Middle Skills Should Be a Partnership Effort

Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) and founder and director of the Workforce Strategies Initiative, works with companies around the globe on many important issues—skilling for the future among them.

Maureen has been vocal on this topic: “We need multiple systems to help people build skills. Educational attainment should not be our only assessment. It’s a crude capture of what should be a far broader picture.”

In a recent conversation, Maureen shared the philosophy of Rick Plympton, CEO of midsize New York manufacturing firm Optimax Systems, which employs workers in the middle-skills category: “If I have someone who has been with my company for 10 or 15 years and I’m hesitating to pay them $25 per hour, then I have to ask myself what in my role as a leader have I missed to help them get to that level of employment?”

I admire Rick’s partnership attitude toward his employees’ skills and learning. In manufacturing environments like his, retail stores, home healthcare and so many other workplaces, we have a need for middle-skill employees. And yet, we’re facing an opportunity with these employees also—one that looms large as the nature of work changes. How do we help our middle-skilled workers with the continuous learning they require to remain relevant, future-proof and ultimately, employable?

Related: Here’s where the skills gap begins

Joe Fuller, professor of management practice and co-leader of the Managing the Future of Work Initiative at Harvard Business School, has so many compelling insights on this topic. First, displaced workers over the past couple of decades have tended to be middle-skills workers who do routine work that can now be automated. And he’ll tell you—most of these workers aren’t afraid of technology. They’re willing to take action to learn new skills and remain relevant.

At issue is that many workers don’t know what skills and certifications are marketable and will make them fit for future work. And even if they did know, they need companies, government and educational organizations that work together to mold skills training that is real-world and feasible. A single working mother with two kids can’t leave her shift midday to attend classes. Sometimes the issue is reliable, affordable transportation, or cost. As HR leaders, we need to push the envelope on creative solutions to these real-world hurdles to benefit our workers and map our companies’ path forward.

Groups like the Aspen Institute are full of great ideas; it proposed a Worker Training Tax Credit as one potential solution. This solution would cost roughly $146.5 million over 10 years, and lead businesses to increase training investments for low- and middle-income workers by 8.5%. Additionally, companies like Google are conducting roadshows and workshops to help instill digital know-how into middle-skills workers, like the ones it just held in Louisiana. “Grow with Google” is helping to bridge the gap before it widens.

Moving from Discussions to Solutions

There are so many creative solutions that chief HR officers can deploy to better employ and skill their middle workforce—including pointing them to the skills that will have the most real-world value. But now is the opportune time to move beyond conversation and strategy into action. That’s where many C-suites are getting stuck.

I can empathize. When I was CHRO of Gap Inc., we began a partnership with leaders in lifelong learning that tackled some of these issues for our employees and retail-industry workers globally. It was exciting to take the leap, but also daunting, and I’m so glad we did. As I look at the work of the past and the impact on present Gap Inc. employees, I see that about 18% of Gap Inc. executives at vice president and above started their careers working with product and customers in store roles. As of April 2019, programs like P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement Career Enhancement) have lifted the lives and career potential of 300,000 women working in 18 countries, through training in foundational life skills, technical know-how and support that helps them advance in the workplace as well as in their personal lives. Women who participate in P.A.C.E. report “increased knowledge, skills and productivity.”

Today’s world moves so fast. As leaders, we may feel that more than many because we’re at the forefront. And that means we must move equally as fast to equip the bulk of our workforce—those in middle-skill jobs and at the intersection of disruption. Our workers need access to new skills and development that ensure their employability and relevancy. It’s good for them. It’s good for our companies. And it’s good for society.

Taking the middle ground on such an important topic won’t get us there. But moving beyond discussion into partnership and action—well, that will. I’m encouraging you to take the leap, as someone who has been committed to advancing lifelong learning and relevancy for my entire career. And I’m happy to share my learnings, if you want to have the discussion.

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