“Lifelong Learning is an Economic Imperative”: The Economist


When the Economist weighs in on the topic of continuous learning, you know things are getting pretty serious. Last week say the publication of their special report on Lifelong Learning. We curate the findings for you and add our take here.

Learning is Earning

They set out a fairly dismal picture of the relationship of a knowledge worker’s current skills and level of formal education to their future prospects. Over the last 30 years a college degree has been devalued: while it’s still a prerequisite to many jobs, on its own it is not a guarantee of enjoyable or high-skilled employment. Automation and competition make college graduates less marketable than ever (unless you’ve learned to code).  And even if that degree gets you a job, it’s not necessarily going to keep you there.

The notion of being trained for life no longer has validity, it is an old model where you get as much formal education as you can early in life, and reap rewards for the rest of your career.  But career spans are lengthening, change is accelerating and it has become essential to acquire new skills as established ones become obsolete.  They quote the German Apprenticeships model as evidence: “Germany is often lauded for its apprenticeships, but the economy has failed to adapt to the knowledge economy…vocational training has a role, but training someone early to do one thing all their lives is not the answer to lifelong learning.”

So we’re faced with the reality that “In many occupations workers on company payrolls face the prospect that their existing skills will become obsolete, yet it is often not obvious how they can gain new ones.” To the Economist though, the answer seems obvious: “To remain competitive, and to give low- and high-skilled workers alike the best chance of success, economies need to offer training and career-focused education throughout people’s working lives.”

This reinforces the need for continuous learning highlighted by Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report. This report emphasised the importance of corporates to develop approaches that “enable people to develop themselves every day”.

They note that people are on board with this: “According to the Pew survey, 54% of all working Americans think it will be essential to develop new skills throughout their working lives; among adults under 30 the number goes up to 61%”. So the challenge is to organisations to meet this demand and help people to reboot, retrain and continuously learning.

What are some ways to do that? Their report highlights a few approaches:

1. Hunt for “Learning Animals”

Smart companies are seeing the value of learning as a skill in its own right and are selecting for it. The Economist shares a case study of Infosys: “Infosys is focusing on “foundational skills” like creativity, problem-solving and empathy. When machines can put humans to shame in performing the routine job-specific tasks that Infosys once took offshore, it makes sense to think about the skills that computers find harder to learn.”

The Economist notes that “Infosys values the skill of “learning velocity”—the process of going from a question to a good idea in a matter of days or weeks. Eric Schmidt, now executive chairman of Alphabet, a tech holding company in which Google is the biggest component, has talked of Google’s recruitment focus on ‘learning animals.’  Mark Zuckerberg, one of Facebook’s founders, sets himself new personal learning goals each year.”

2. Invest in Continuous Learning

If you’re going to hire learning animals, you better keep them fed. The Economist shares several examples of firms backing up their commitment to lifelong learning with investment: “AT&T, a telecoms and media firm with around 300,000 employees, faces two big workforce problems: rapidly changing skills requirements in an era of big data and cloud computing, and constant employee churn that leaves the company having to fill 50,000 jobs a year. Recruiting from outside is difficult, expensive and liable to cause ill-feeling among existing staff. The firm’s answer is an ambitious plan to reskill its own people.”

We’ve written before about AT&T. Their CEO’s edict is that everyone spends 5-10 hours a week learning to “stay on top of the firehose of new information”. And if they can’t stay on top? “Mark my words, if we don’t do this, in 3 years we’ll be managing decline”. Do they even have that long?

3. Personalise the experience – MOOCs, Microlearning, Microcredentials

Part of their report looks at the return of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course)  post the initial Khan-academy hype in 2012. They cite several organisations using MOOCs from Coursera, Degreed, EdX and others to fuel continuous learning. They acknowledge that awarding degrees from MOOCs is replicating the formal, dated model of traditional awarding bodies. The answer: think smaller and take a lesson from the music business.

“Songs used to be bundled into albums before being disaggregated by iTunes and streaming services such as Spotify. In [this] analogy, the degree is the album, the course content that is freely available on MOOCs is the free streaming radio service, and a “microcredential” like the nanodegree or the specialisation is paid-for iTunes.” They discuss methods of personalising the experience with focused assessments and diagnostics, which some MOOC providers offer.

This does support the current views on microlearning – they note that the “sweet spot” for a component within a MOOC experience is six minutes. However it’s not clear whether microcredentials really have much currency yet. They can get outdated as quickly as traditional qualifications. If they had expiry dates like Open Badges, then individuals and employers would have the motivation to refresh them to stay on top of the current content. These could be enhanced with a link to relevant external content through a curated feed for example.

For us the report shone a light on some of the key challenges that individuals, businesses and economies face if they don’t commit to lifelong learning. It’s a little long on MOOCs, which are closer in spirit to formal courses and training, though a lot more accessible. A wider examination of alternative ways of learning, such as social and informal approaches in the workplace would have given a wider view of the options available. That said, it’s a really valuable set of insights and a wake-up call to the risks of becoming obsolete which we all face. We expect it’ll be widely shared and quoted as a call to action for continuous learning.