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How to Future-Proof Your Workforce in Uncertain Times: Invest in Learning

Preparing the modern workforce for the jobs of the future has never been more challenging because figuring out what the future might hold has never been more difficult.

This reality led to one of the more interesting parts of my recent conversation with Deanna Mulligan. She’s a former CEO of the Guardian Life Insurance Company whose work now focuses on helping companies close the “skills gap.” And I spend a good bit of my time working on boards of organizations that are directly or indirectly involved in education. So workforce development is a topic near and dear to both our hearts.

The insights and advise Mulligan shared when we visited on LinkedIn Live have only grown in relevance. In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute released a study that predicted 3 to 14 percent of the global workforce – somewhere between 75 million and 375 million workers – would need to switch “occupational categories” by 2030 because of automation in the workforce.

“Moreover,” the report said, “all workers will need to adapt, as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. Some of that adaptation will require higher educational attainment or spending more time on activities that require social and emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities and other skills relatively hard to automate.”

Then along came a global pandemic, which, MGI said in a 2021 report, “elevated the importance of the physical dimension of work” for the first time and caused a variety of other disruptions to the workforce. “The pandemic accelerated existing trends in remote work, e-commerce, and automation,” MGI said, “with up to 25 percent more workers than previously estimated potentially needing to switch occupations.”

In America, there’s been the added dynamic of what’s been called the “Great Resignation” – millions of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs. In November, when a record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs, there were 1.5 available jobs for every unemployed person.

“All of these forces have been unleashed,” Mulligan told me, “and they’re not going away.”

Her solution, which she outlines in more detail in her book Higher Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap, involves ways government, business, and education can partner on a next-generation system that’s based on four principles.

One, education can’t stop when you walk across a graduation stage.

Many of the things we’ve had to learn for work in the last few years aren’t things that were taught in high school or college – even if you just graduated from college.

“Whatever skills you graduate with from whatever institution,” she said, “they’re going to be obsolete in probably 5 to 10 years. Not all the skills, obviously, but some of what you might think of as core job skills, technical skills are just going to continue to change.”

There are still benefits of earning a college degree. Some fundamental principles and theories don’t change, for instance, and a liberal arts degree, in particular, teaches students how to think critically and embrace a love for learning.  The skill of pursuing more knowledge might just be the most important thing any student can master.

Two, students need experience to succeed in the workplace.

Community colleges, four-year universities and industry need to work together to create more internships that give students experience and to design courses that incorporate practical application as well as theory. And for front-line jobs, high school students can get a jump on their training by enrolling in programs that allow them to start on an associate degree before they finish high school.

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Three, workers need more than a degree.

The idea of continuous learning is expanding to areas that are very different from traditional higher education. In what’s known as the “credentials movement,” many companies hire based more on a candidate’s credentials than their diploma. Businesses, the government, and education institutions need to collaborate to standardize those credentials so that certifications have more meaning to both employees and employers.

Four, companies must invest deeply in their employees.

Investing in employees – in their care as well as their training – creates loyalty that is essential, especially during difficult times. Leading with heart, providing workers with a meaningful purpose, and instituting very practical benefits that support the needs of employees are all ways of investing in the workforce.

Mulligan saw this type of investment pay off in two significant ways when she was CEO of Guardian. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, Guardian had no power or internet at its New York headquarters for nine months.

“Through all of that, it was really the employees’ desire to deliver and to not let our customers down that made Guardian a success,” she told me. “And I strongly believe the reason they were so invested in making it happen for our customers is they knew the leadership team was very invested in them.”

Whatever changes come with the future, whether they are related to automation, digitization, or some factor we can’t yet predict, a nimble approach to training and education and a deep investment in people will be the cornerstones for creating success.

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