When tax cuts put billions of dollars on the balance sheets of American businesses, companies like AT&T and U-Haul promptly issued bonuses for their employees. Walmart gave a raise to their lowest-paid personnel. Such monetary moves are both attention grabbing and well-received in an economy where so many full-time workers live paycheck to paycheck. But at a time when the specter of mass technological unemployment threatens one-third of the workforce, today’s headlines tend to overlook educational investments being made by the very same companies — and others like them — with the potential to alter the economic trajectory of American workers by helping them to develop new skills without leaving their jobs.
As it turns out, individuals and employers today are grappling with an interrelated set of challenges. The shelf life of skills is shrinking. Even the durability of degrees is waning. Gone are the days when individuals could learn present-day skills for careers that last a lifetime. And it’s not just technical skills that face accelerating obsolescence. Deloitte estimates that the capabilities of college graduates will be due for a refresh in just five years. Employers are struggling to attract and retain talent. Individuals are struggling to find the time and money to keep current in an increasingly dynamic labor market.
Against that backdrop, major employers like Walmart and AT&T have launched ambitious programs to provide employees with a panoply of educational options, from corporate training to college tuition assistance. U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue made the case that American businesses should leverage today’s tax windfall to make investments in apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning that have garnered rare, bipartisan support in recent months. And with good reason: modern day apprenticeships have proven their impact on both corporate competitiveness, retention and economic mobility for some 24 million frontline workers looking for real opportunities for career advancement, and fueling costly churn within our dynamic labor market.
Consider the case of Adobe, which launched a “digital academy” that provides candidates the chance to learn high-tech skills from coding boot camps, along with on-the-job experience and stipends to cover living expenses. They’re making it possible for low-income and underrepresented minority job-seekers to develop in-demand skills, while building a diverse, tech talent pipeline that will serve the business for years to come.
Penske Corp. provides existing workers with a chance to learn the technical skills needed to repair tomorrow’s vehicles, while working in their current job. Over the past decade, the trucking giant has issued more than 1,600 certifications to its technicians, helping them to pursue new career pathways and advance throughout the company.
Some companies are taking the approach one step further, making it possible for employees to not only develop new skills on the job but pursue a college degree while working full-time. Their investments in talent are paying off. According to a study funded by the Lumina Foundation, Discover’s three-year, $7.4 million investment in tuition costs for employees produced an overall 144 percent return due to reduced talent management costs, higher rates of promotion, transfers, retention and lower rates of absenteeism. Employees who participated in the program also won; they received annual wage increases that were, on average, at least 41 percent greater than nonparticipating employees.
The experiences of companies like Adobe, Penske and Discover make the business case clear. And it seems clear to us that our nation’s economic future depends on efforts that align job demand to skills training. Businesses have both an opportunity — and responsibility — to play a more central role in cultivating the shift toward continuous learning that is fast becoming table stakes for success in our dynamic new world of work. Today’s tax cuts can fuel investments in a new paradigm for American apprenticeship and can pave sustainable pathways to opportunity for both individuals and organizations for years to come.
Jamai Blivin is the founder and CEO of Innovate+Educate, a national nonprofit working to create economic opportunity by encouraging the shift toward new approaches to learning and hiring. Frank Britt is the CEO of Penn Foster, a provider of career pathway, workforce readiness and upskilling programs to help middle-skilled workers advance in their careers and earn better wages. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.