A growing and pervasive challenge within our post-industrial and ever-accelerating digital economy is that of better preparing the emerging workforce for the future of work — today. The importance of human capital development at every level within our enterprises has become even more critical to innovating and creating the competitive advantage required to meet our customer’s heightened expectations in a globally hyperconnected marketplace.
Customers and prospects have become much more digitally fluent than they were just one or two years ago and we see this trend continuing to accelerate. This is perhaps most visible via the continued rapid increase in e-commerce as reported by Mastercard Spending Pulse, which tracks both online and offline spending trends; seasonal shopping from November 1 to December 24, 2019, was up 3.4 percent over 2018 while online sales expanded by 18.8 percent during the same period. Use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation and other emerging technologies that underlie and enable these online processes is helping consumers solve their e-commerce problems faster and more conveniently than ever before.
As companies continue to respond to dynamic and innovative marketplace forces with greater adoption of these technologies, it will require material shifts to their operating models and workforce. As a result, the talent and skills needed to win are shifting as well. According to McKinsey & Co.’s December 2017 report, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation,” by 2030, more than 30 percent of the United States labor market and 375 million workers globally will need to change jobs or upgrade their skills significantly to continue to advance within the workforce.
As learning and development professionals, the principal challenge of our practice is recognizing these changing talent and skill requirements within our organizations while leveraging the educational capabilities at our disposal to support them. Further, in a very direct sense, the continued commercial efficacy of our enterprises and their ability to meet customers on their terms with greater speed and efficiency, while at the same time extending American business leadership throughout the 21st century and beyond, will hinge upon our ability to capitalize on this workforce skilling challenge. As in other areas of our profession, innovating and moving beyond traditional human capital development models will be invaluable as we advance our transition as a global economic system to a knowledge- and innovation-based economy. This is where modern apprenticeships can play a big role.
A Modern Apprenticeship Model
A first step to innovating our talent development approach is to fully recognize that knowledge, courtesy of Google and lesser-known search engines, has become commoditized. Thanks to innovation, every child with a smart phone now has access to practically our entire store of global knowledge with increasing accuracy and speed. In this transformative period our workforce, commercial enterprises and society as a whole could benefit from earlier talent engagement that provides a more blended and coordinated work/study process in the context of developing required skill sets effectively and efficiently. Also, we must acknowledge that our ability to further prepare the workforce at scale for these economic mega-trends is essential to the continued vibrancy and growth of economic output while at the same time increasing standards of living and distributing them more evenly across our nation.
A more rapid and expanded adoption of a modernized apprenticeship framework that provides this blended and coordinated learning approach could help address these talent needs while preparing young adults for the future of work. It is also a solution that incorporates traditional scholastic education with an experiential real-work focus, helping build commercially oriented skills, experiences and credentials. A key objective of the apprenticeship approach is to connect more young and diverse students to our knowledge- and innovation-based economy in a manner that not only provides the skills needed for long-term success but also serves as a process to launch this talent into a career pathway that enables them to optimize their skills in the context of ever-emerging new technologies and career opportunities.
The modern apprenticeship program model is focused on in-demand jobs and provides both on-the-job training and classroom instruction. This dual process allows apprentices to earn wages while learning commercial skills.
Learning From Zurich
Here to Here, a New York-based nonprofit that links employers, educators and diverse community stakeholders to enhance career pathways for young adults, is one organization that recognizes the value in modern apprenticeships. CEO Abby Jo Sigal recently led a contingent of major employers and educators on a visit to Zurich, Switzerland, in an effort to review the Swiss vocational education and training process. This engagement provided an in-depth review of the system, which integrates workplace experiential learning with academic education via cross-sector collaboration between the Swiss business community and educational complex. A key outcome of this cross-sector cooperation is the earlier engagement of Swiss young adults in the labor force, with a focus on helping them obtain the skills and experiences that prepare them for the future of work.
In contrast, in the United States — with 85 percent of students nationally graduating from high school, according to the 2019 U.S. News & World Report, and 30 percent going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education statistics by college expert and journalist Lynn O’Shaughnessy — we have accumulated $1.6 trillion in student debt. Despite these statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor reported in January 2019 that 6 million jobs go unfilled due to the mismatch of the skills needed in the labor market.
Incorporating many of the lessons learned from the Swiss vocational education and training process, Here to Here launched a new apprenticeship program in 2019 with 85 apprentices. In a June 2019 Crain’s New York Business article, Sigal indicated, “We’re using these apprenticeships to really align employers and educators around the goal of making sure that, by the time a young person is 25, they have found or [are] on the path to a family-sustaining career. That’s something we are not currently doing well, particularly for students of color or students growing up in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx or East New York.”
Times They Are a Changin’
We collectively understand that education matters, so much so that our compulsory requirement of mandating a high school public education in the United States began in the early 1920s, according to the 2008 Digest of Education Statistics. The focus during this period was providing a rapidly expanding American population with an increased investment in the human capital skills needed to address the labor requirements of the then-emerging industrial age.
The 1920s was a decade when the American economy experienced significant economic growth. The mass production of new consumer goods created an increased demand for a more highly skilled workforce. This economic expansion was exemplified by the birth of the modern auto and airline industries that in part created this need for higher-skilled talent. As a result, between 1920 and 1940 the “high school movement” enabled increased high school enrollment rates and graduation numbers, which helped fulfill the workforce needs of this industrial expansion.
Notwithstanding this progress, it is difficult to argue that in our current post-industrial global economic system, a high school educational attainment level alone is sufficient to position our workforce or our society for the long-term competitive advantage required to maintain our global leadership position. However, we also understand that a four-year college degree may not comport with the aspirations of all students. The modern apprenticeship program provides more flexibility for students, options that provide participants with targeted in-demand skills beyond a high school degree together with job training and employment. Additionally, these experiences are both “braided” with school and work. Plus, they are permeable — should students desire to change career specializations or accelerate their progress toward associate, bachelor or post-graduate degrees, the modern apprenticeship program supports these various career pathing trajectories.
There are 30 million living wage roles — these are roles defined as having median earnings of $55,000 annually in the United States that pay at this level without a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Notwithstanding, bachelor degree earners currently occupy 55 percent of all of these living wage positions. Further, traditionally most employees with these living wage roles without a bachelor’s degree have worked in manufacturing, but in the context of our post-industrial age of work, these job types are declining.
At the same time, we are seeing the number of living wage roles in skilled-services industries, like health services and financial services, increasing. Also, for workers without a bachelor’s degree, associate degrees have become increasingly important, and these degree holders are getting an expanded share of the living wage positions while the number held by workers with a high school diploma only continue to decline.
With the proliferation and acceleration of digital fluency skills required, the nature of all jobs will continue to change. Even now some three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require education or training beyond a high school diploma. What will help continue to fuel future economic output for society, commercial enterprises and individuals is no longer simply knowing more than other people or other organizations but being able to apply knowledge in an effective and innovative manner. A more rapid and expanded adoption of this modern apprenticeship framework would create this clear and distinct competitive differentiation to extend our leadership in workforce innovation and global commerce.
Legislation is Creating Opportunities
When the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act went into effect July 1, 2019, new opportunities were created to improve career and technical education, or CTE, programs, also referred to as vocational programs. Passage of the act signaled strong support for CTE by a bipartisan congress, bringing together key stakeholders from the Department of Education, the business sectors, educators, parents and other community members to set the foundation for helping students position themselves more effectively for the future of work. The act acknowledges that students at all levels of education could benefit from greater innovation and cross-sector engagement while securing greater linkage with workforce development and career pathways.
The bill reauthorizes through 2024 and is focused on ensuring all students can benefit from high-quality CTE programs to help better prepare them for high-skill, high-wage employment. The legislation created new opportunities to improve CTE programs, enabling the states to have greater flexibility to meet the unique needs of their students, educators and employers. Provisions in the act allow school districts to use federal funds to provide all students, not just those enrolled in CTE programs, expanded access to career exploration and skill development activities in the middle grades and more comprehensive academic counseling in high school.
A Critical Crossroads
We stand at a critical inflection point with respect to the need for an improved talent development model to help us more effectively meet the skill needs of our dynamic and expanding digital economy. It is a challenge that will require the collective leadership of business, government, higher education and, of course, our students. It is a challenge that will be solutioned by this increased cross-sector collaboration together with further reconfiguration of our talent development processes. It means being open to adopting the changes that a modernized apprenticeship program can deliver in the context of existing national CTE processes.
Most important, it means advancing this student-centric approach in a manner that is fit for purpose for the massive technological advances and resulting business operating model changes that await us — changes that will provide a more dynamic ability to deliver the commercial skills required for the workforce of this post-industrial age.