As a result of technology, globalization, and demographic changes, the American workplace has changed profoundly over the past 40 years, and it continues to evolve. Employers still need workers who come to jobs with industry-specific knowledge. But they also increasingly value such skills as effective communication and critical thinking to facilitate teamwork and meet expectations of ongoing innovation. Thus, some workers find that their knowledge and skills are no longer up to date or even necessary and that employers no longer offer stable employment and benefits packages. Some employers struggle to find workers who have the kinds of skills and knowledge needed to keep their companies well-staffed and competitive over the long term.
This brief, released in 2019, took a systems approach to rethink the current workforce development and employment system. The study pinpoints the ways in which the system is failing many and envisions how educators, employers, workers, and other stakeholders can rebuild the current system to bring about much-needed transformation.
The Executive Summary includes the following suggestions that emerged as a result of the research:
- Strong connectivity: A rapid exchange of accurate and timely information across stakeholders would support the decisions made by workers, employers, and leaders in education, training, and other relevant institutions.
- Flexibility and responsiveness: Workers, employers, educators, and institutions across the system would readily adapt to changing skill requirements, market forces, and other unexpected circumstances in the short and longer terms.
- Aligned incentives: The incentives embedded in private or public policies would support system goals and promote desired outcomes.
- Evidence-based decision making: Current and readily available data and other evidence-based practices would be used to monitor system outputs and outcomes, identify needed reforms, test interventions, share lessons learned, and effectively scale up proven strategies.
Major Findings & Recommendations
- Workers need to re-skill but have no clear path forward. Automation and shifting consumer demands have made some of the skills that individuals learned years ago obsolete. Many workers may need to immediately acquire new knowledge and skills, but there is no well-defined path for them to acquire what they need to succeed.
- Workers do not have equal access to training. Public funding for all levels of education is still unequally distributed and is often based on location and family circumstances. And in the workplace, employers often pay for only the more educated members of their workforce to advance their skills. These inequities perpetuate disparities in wages, earnings, and lifetime incomes.
- Workers face less stability and more risk. While freelancing and the gig economy offer flexibility, there are distinct trade-offs. Unlike many traditional wage and salary jobs, workers in these jobs lack well-defined career ladders and access to fringe benefits to buffer the risks associated with health care needs, accidents, injuries, disability, and the business cycle.
- Employers struggle to find workers with 21st century skills. There is greater demand for workers who master information synthesis, creativity, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork and substantial demand for skilled positions that do not require post-secondary degrees or specific credentials. Yet time after time, employers report that they cannot find the workers with these skills, and positions go unfilled.
- Educational institutions are slow to change. Relying on traditional curricula and learning models, our primary and secondary schools have been slow to adapt to the need to prepare children and youth to be lifelong learners.
- There are too few ways to develop and try out new strategies, reforms and policies. Educators, employers, and policymakers often seek to introduce change. But transformation has been piecemeal, with each sector focusing on changing itself without engaging with other sectors or considering broader consequences. Further, there are no mechanisms in place to build information from employers and training institutions could help schools respond to changing employer needs or assist college students and workers in making smart education and retraining choices. However, this information isn’t always shared or is outdated by the time it reaches those who need it.