How Lifelong Learning Can Help Grow and Keep Jobs in the United States

Published may. 08, 2017

Much ink has been spilled describing the rapid pace of change in the U.S. labor market and the resulting disaffection and frustration it has caused low-income and working-class populations across the country. Already, because of automation, the U.S. manufacturing sector now makes 85 percent more goods than it did in 1987, but with only two-thirds the number of workers. This is just the tip of the iceberg: according to Oxford University, 47 percent of workers in America “are likely to be substituted by computer capital” in the years ahead.

To keep U.S. manufacturing—and other key sectors of the economy—competitive and to help laid off workers quickly learn new skills and reintegrate the labor market, we need a synchronized strategy in which educators, policymakers, community, and business leaders work together to reflect on the long-term implications of these shifts in the labor market. A priority should be to build a knowledge base about the future of work and to use it to inform policies that incentivize business innovation while creating safety nets for those most at risk of being left behind in our economy.

This new paradigm calls for a radical rethinking of how we educate and employ workers: motivating them to continue to adapt to the demands of a changing labor market to be lifelong learners. The Economist recently published a special report describing lifelong learning as an economic imperative, outlining promising strategies that are now being deployed across several sectors. Here are three areas that are particularly worthy of further exploration:

  • Adopt student-centered learning principles like empowering student voice and agency in learning and personalizing learning to students’ individual needs, which emphasize growth mindset and noncognitive skills. Taught effectively in K-12 and higher education, these skills help students develop and master essential lifelong learning skills including developing self-motivation, conducting research, evaluating and synthesizing information, and communicating understandings.
  • Look to government policy: In the city-state of Singapore, the government started a program that gives every citizen above the age of 25 a $345 credit that can be freely used to pay for any training courses provided by 500 approved providers, including universities and massive online open course (MOOC) providers. Generous subsidies, of up to 90 percent for Singaporeans aged 40 and over, are available on top of this credit. The government of Singapore plans to increase investment in this program from $600M a year to $1B within 3 years. This is a great example of how government policy can support lifelong learning.
  • Expand business-sponsored upskilling and reskilling efforts: In the United States, McDonald’s Corporation’s Archways to Opportunity and ATT’s Workforce 2020 are both models of ambitious company-led programs designed to create opportunities for advancement for tens of thousands of existing employees. Another noteworthy initiative is health insurer Cigna’s Education Reimbursement Program, which has been found to generate a 129 percent return on investment—every dollar the company puts into the program is returned and generates an additional $1.29 in savings.

In the face of unprecedented changes in the labor market, lifelong learning skills have become survival skills for all learners across the educational continuum and employees whose jobs duties are constantly shifting as well as those who are at risk of being replaced by machines. Several promising examples of how to incentivize and implement lifelong learning already exist. It’s our job to figure out what works, and how to adapt those lessons to specific contexts.