It wasn’t so long ago that people with a high-school diploma, a good work ethic, and a strong body could build solid, middle-class careers in blue-collar jobs like manufacturing and construction. That’s no longer possible.
As traditional blue-collar jobs dwindle, another promising category of jobs is growing: jobs that require a baseline of technical skills but not necessarily a four-year degree. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty calls them “new-collar” jobs and cites examples like cloud computing analyst and services delivery specialists. If those titles sound unfamiliar, that’s the point. These roles didn’t exist a short while ago, and workers suited to new-collar jobs will need to retrain to meet employers’ needs.
The days of front-loading education are gone. All jobs will continue to change as technology evolves and reshapes job requirements. In fact, I think Rometty’s definition of new-collar can and will be expanded as workers experience an ever-accelerating pace of change. Big Data, AI, miniaturization, and automation will bring changes that dwarf what the internet revolution has brought about thus far. Everyone, regardless of how many degrees you have or what field you work in, will need to be a lifelong learner to stay relevant over the course of an entire career. That’s not going to happen by magic.
What employers can do
Companies could be doing more to support their current employees’ learning and development as well as opening their doors to non-traditional new hires. And it’s really in their best interest to do so. Research has found that companies with a culture of learning outperform the competition.
Provide training in skills for current role AND beyond: Most companies limit employees to learning skills tied closely to their job function. That’s valuable training, but stopping there misses a huge opportunity for employers to close their own skills gaps by hiring from within. Instead, companies should seek out ambitious, coachable learners and give them free rein to explore their interests.
Improve the employee experience: Employees are more engaged and productive in their jobs when they’re encouraged to learn and grow, while employers see increased retention and can make progress toward future-proofing their headcount. Fostering a learning culture doesn’t simply mean rolling out training programs. It’s about building an organization where employees actively create knowledge and feel safe to take risks and fail.
Focus on potential, not job history: It’s heartening to see more leading companies abandon their narrow-minded emphasis on educational pedigree and prior work experience to fill new-collar jobs. Programming — one of the most in-demand skills — can be learned and mastered outside a formal classroom setting, and employers who only look for computer science majors miss out on many smart, hard-working candidates.
Companies would be better served weighing a candidate’s capacity for learning as well as their strength in soft skills, instead of discrete hard skills that will likely grow obsolete. Additionally, they should broaden their scope to consider non-traditional candidates, like older job seekers, career-switchers, and people who’ve been out of the workforce.
What government can do
The U.S. can learn from government-sponsored training programs that are successfully reskilling and upskilling workers in other countries. Germany and Switzerland, for example, back apprenticeships that place students at partner companies where they can “earn while they learn.” The Trump administration has already indicated its support of apprenticeships and other vocational training in areas like advanced manufacturing and IT.
Such programs, however, tend to target college-age students, leaving open the question of enabling working adults to become qualified for these good jobs. Singapore’s SkillsFuture program is different. Touted as “a national movement to enable all Singaporeans to develop to their fullest potential,” this novel approach gives every citizen financial credits to put toward approved learning resources and encourages the entire populace to embrace lifelong learning “no matter where you are in life.”
Research suggests Americans would like to see something similar here: 63 percent say the most important role of government is to protect American workers and 86 percent support tax credits for companies that pay for workers to train in other, more modern work skills. College kids aren’t the only ones who could use financial aid to make education possible.
What individuals can do
It takes discipline, resilience, and personal initiative to reskill after you’ve been out of school a few years. Today’s working adults can’t yet count on employers to dish up the learning and development they need, but they can’t choose to opt out and hope to coast to retirement either. Fortunately, if you want to take your career in a new direction, there are more learning formats than ever offering flexibility, affordability, and choice. Of course, I’m a fan of on-demand, video-based online coursesthat deliver information in easily consumable portions and let students drive their own experience.
People who adopt a growth mindset and develop themselves into lifelong learners will always have an advantage over those who don’t. I strongly agree that the willingness and ability to learn is the most valuable “skill”anyone can possess. Lifelong learners can start by satisfying a curiosity, exploring a new hobby, and even developing a side hustle as their knowledge grows. Given the pace of change ahead, the newest and most experienced workers alike need to consider themselves “new-collar workers” who adopt new technology and add new skills continuously in their careers.
Kevin H. Johnson is the CEO of Udemy, an online course provider.