Upskilling Programmes for Diverse Learners can be a Model for Mainstream Career Readiness Initiatives

Not long ago, retraining might have been extraordinarily difficult. But there are a growing number of resources that link classes and career, helping adults to prepare for and switch to fulfilling careers. Banner image: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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When COVID-19 tightened its grip on everyday life in early 2020, many white collar workers had the luxury of working from home, relatively safe from rampant infection. At greatest risk during that period were those from underresourced communities who didn't have the same option, such as folks who had in-person jobs in the manufacturing, food service, retail, transportation and hospitality sectors. For them, there was no such thing as remote work. Many were furloughed or laid off.

People began evaluating their career choices in the months following the initial lockdowns. Many began contemplating better paying professions in which they could telecommute and have more control over their schedule. Sure enough, by the beginning of 2021, an IBM Institute for Business Value study of people in multiple OECD countries found that 1 in 5 reported switching employers in 2020, and 1 in 4 planned to switch occupations in 2021, citing chiefly the need for a better work/life balance. Fifty-eight percent of consumers surveyed said they planned to take continuing education courses this year, mostly online versus in person.

Not long ago, retraining might have been extraordinarily difficult, requiring college coursework at great time and monetary expense. But there are a growing number of first-rate, affordable or free in-person and online resources that link classes and career, helping adults to prepare for and switch to fulfilling careers. The public, not for profit and private sectors are rising to the occasion with ever more education options, platforms, models and strategies to begin readying young adults well before they hit the job market for the first time. While many of these approaches may have been viewed as lesser, second choices for students in challenging circumstances, their practicality and success has shown them to be every bit as effective as more established education pathways, perhaps more so.

Universities have much more diverse enrolment these days, and there is more pressure on students, particularly from those from modest financial circumstances, to demonstrate job-ready proficiency

For example, consider the traditional university course. There was a time when it wasn't expected to provide more than a narrow set of skills, often abstract and removed from real-world practice. Perhaps students weren't particularly troubled by this. They may have come from well-connected social and economic backgrounds and finding a good job was a given. Or, the point was academic inquiry and broadened intellectual horizons for its own sake. However, universities have much more diverse enrolment these days, and there is more pressure on students, particularly from those from modest financial circumstances, to demonstrate job-ready proficiency the day they graduate.

It turns out that universities whose classes blend both technical and human-centric proficiencies, such as collaboration, presentation and problem solving, may better prepare students for the professional workplace—eight times better, in fact. IBM worked with Spain's IE University's Center for the Governance of Change to study how well universities were aligning their coursework content with the labour market and actual job openings. Researchers used the natural language processing of AI to analyse and compare 13 million job postings with 500,000 university syllabi in Spain, the United States and Denmark. They found that universities more influenced by real-world student needs were eight times better aligned to job postings.

Read more on the Forum Network: University Challenges: The role of higher education in a post-COVID world by Colm Harmon, Vice Principal (Students) and Professor of Applied Economics, University of Edinburgh

This is also what some free online coursework platforms do, such as IBM SkillsBuild. They offer well-rounded curricula that addresse both technical and human-centred skills, like collaboration. The importance of such “soft” skills may be underestimated, but according to an IBM Institute for Business Value study, many employers believe them to be just as, or even more important, than technical knowhow. Technical and human-centred coursework can be useful to both job seekers and for seasoned professionals seeking continuing education.

Better skilling programmes don't leave learners to guess the right combinations of online coursework that might help them achieve a particular job role. Rather, self-assessments and specific pathways help remove guesswork from the equation. Further, classwork and certifications are integrated with in-person, hands-on job search and placement services offered by local not-for-profit economic development and vocational organisations that provide networking events and job fairs. This figurative hand-holding may be particularly important to those from diverse backgrounds and without existing professional networks. Better programmes also offer real world portfolio-building projects and internships that put knowledge into practice. Crucially, they also provide one-to-one mentoring and coaching from established professionals to provide strategic and practical advice.

Along those lines, local business communities need to be invested in new pools of diverse, prospective employee talent. For instance, we need more programmes like OneTen, in which 37 corporations, including IBM, committed to upskill, hire and promote one million Black Americans without four-year college degrees, into family-sustaining jobs over the next ten years. Now, not every business is able to make and honour a pledge like that, but companies do owe it to themselves and their shareholders to expand their talent pool. Companies might consider, for instance, affiliating themselves with local P-TECH schools. This a model co-founded by IBM, now in 28 countries, in which public secondary/high schools team up with technical community colleges and local businesses to provide teens from marginalised communities with paid internships, mentorships and job interviews.

Such initiatives—free online curricula, vocational-technical training, job placement assistance, mentorships—may have once been thought of as philanthropy, or goodwill gestures to only help underresourced youth or aspiring professionals from unconventional backgrounds. They are, in fact, vital tools in cultivating top talent and maintaining national competitiveness. The World Economic Forum suggests that closing the global skills gap could add USD 11.5 trillion to global GDP by 2028. And with millions of specialised jobs remaining unfilled in some OECD countries, the business and education communities can’t afford not to become better aligned. It may have taken COVID-19 to inspire future professionals, but now the hard work begins—and the public, private and not-for-profit sectors urgently need to collaborate to create new opportunities for all.

Read the OECD Policy Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) Designing active labour market policies for the recovery

Read the OECD Policy Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) Designing active labour market policies for the recovery

See data on Education and more on the OECD Data Portal

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Justina Nixon-Saintil

Vice President and Global Head, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), IBM

Justina Nixon-Saintil drives strategic, socially responsible programmatic investments that enable IBM’s technology and talent to address some of society's biggest challenges worldwide. The CSR programs Justina manages enable IBM and its employees to transform their altruism into reality. For example, IBM SkillsBuild and P-TECH, use multisector partnerships to help create more inclusive and innovative schools and workforces. She also spearheads corporate practices that underpin the company's tradition of uncompromising ethics and transparency in its operations and environmental footprint.

Justina Nixon-Saintil on LinkedIn