The $8.5 trillion skills gap: How learning leaders must address it through talent and tech

The largely reported 85-million-person talent deficit by 2030 highlights the role that future human talent will play alongside technology that replaces bad jobs and helps upskill and reskill workers in the future of work.

According to Korn Ferry’s “Future of Work Findings,” we can expect to see an estimated total talent deficit of 85 million workers in 2030, resulting in $8.452 trillion in unrealized revenue globally — more than the yearly GDP of the U.K. and Germany combined. The U.S. could miss out on $1.748 trillionin revenue due to labor shortages — about 6 percent of the entire U.S. economy.

This long-reported global talent crunch is driven by a shortage of skills, not people — plenty are willing to learn whatever is needed. The future workplace landscape necessitates an entirely new way of working as technologies advance and talent pipelines dwindle.

While many leaders are betting on technology and automation for future growth — 67 percent of CEOs believe technology will be their primary value generator — they must not discount the importance of human talent.

Successful organizations will move to a more flexible approach with workers and adapt to new technologies as they change the workplace. In the future of work, organizations and learning and development leaders can maximize their full potential by finding harmony between technology and human talent. Learning leaders must implement programs that address clearly defined gaps to gain and maintain relevant skills to reach this future.

A growing disconnect 

The investment in skills and workforce training has continually fallen since the 1970s. This effect has been exacerbated as many companies have relied on buying talent and pressuring talent to fill gaps in skill rather than upskilling their own workforce.

“It really comes down to that build-versus-buy strategy,” says Dr. Michelle Weise, vice chancellor of strategy and innovation at National University System. “Instead of taking the time to invest in building the existing talent, it felt much easier to go out and externally recruit and buy precisely the talent you were seeking. And that was the fix for a very long time.”

Many employers don’t understand the skills of their existing workforce. According to a study by Harvard Business School, most employers don’t think their employees are ready for the future of work for fear of change, but just the opposite is true. Workers were found to be more than twice as likely to hold themselves responsible for preparing for the future of work compared to just 19 percent of their employers.

This disconnect is massive, but learning leaders are in the perfect position to fill these gaps from within. With the labor market being so tight, employers can’t just pluck their desired talent anymore. 

“Work and learning need to go together,” says Dara Warn, chief customer officer and president of the career division at Penn Foster. “Part of someone’s job needs to carve out time to learn and refine the skills they have so they can be ready for what that next job is.” More time should be spent learning as many companies evolve quicker than the overall education landscape. 

The specific training and education needed to address the skilled technical worker shortage isn’t easy to do with our current training infrastructures. Education and training ecosystems need to be tightly connected to potential workers and through technology we can reduce those barriers to entry. 

Technological tools

“As costs decrease and technology becomes more agile and mobile, it is important to seek out these more efficient approaches to immersive learning,” says Bharani Rajakumar, CEO and founder of TRANSFR. “Immersive technology should make reaching training goals easier, providing efficient and cost-effective ways for people to acquire the skills they need for the jobs they want.”

Once you put on the VR headset, a digital coach in a virtual training facility helps you learn from mistakes in real-time one-on-one training without the limits of an actual trainer or coach’s schedule. Virtual training also allows new employees to train without having to use expensive equipment or even be in a potentially hazardous workplace.

TRANSFR VR serves customers across industries, including companies most affected by the skills shortage like Mazda Toyota Manufacturing in Alabama. Mazda Toyota needed 4,000 skilled workers in two years, and VR technology allowed them to train new workers without in-house expertise or any costly equipment. As a result, a 46 percent improvement in troubleshooting times at the company saved $22,000 per minute and 85 percent of trainees would choose immersive training over traditional training. 

If learning leaders and chief learning officers implement upskilling and reskilling programs to help people find new, emerging positions, automation can work in tandem with human talent to increase quality of life in the workplace. Immersive technologies can also act as a way to build community in the workplace to combat the more fluid labor market.

Immersive training solutions make reaching training goals easier while providing the tools for all kinds of people who don’t have access. For example, the primary focus of TRANSFR’s training is currently on manufacturing as more and more of the workforce has aged out and potential talent has moved toward four-year degrees. Technology can also be used to bring more equity to the workplace among different socio-economic backgrounds. 

Opening language barriers can be crucial to accessing a massive untapped pool of talent. Of the millions of English learners in the U.S., we currently meet the needs of very few — which is stark considering immigration is expected to account for 88 percent of future population growth. In a country as monolingual as the U.S., many English learners are afraid to speak up to customers or their own boss, but successful language learning alleviates those fears. 

“Language learning often solves the problem of a perceived skill gap,” says Dr. Katie Brown, founder and chief education officer at EnGen. “We look at talent through a lens that is often clouded. And language learning is something that can remove barriers for people who have existing skills that they’re not able to take advantage of.”

Learning and training systems based on technology can “adapt instruction and the content that we give learners and it can measure their improvement and language competence,” Brown says. “So instruction can be tailored to their needs and goals. And that’s in line with what we know from our 60 years of research on how to help teach people languages in the most efficient and effective way.”

Instead of generic ESL classes, EnGen provides professionals and certified medical professionals to help English learners get the English skills they need to work in fields like allied health. As we’ve moved to a more fluid, online workplace we can incorporate technologies as methods of upskilling and reskilling. 

What can learning leaders do?

It starts with understanding the growth strategy of your own organization and the pathways that will be most effective at taking your talent and upskilling them into a future role. “Whatever an employer or an organization can do to help narrow the options and make that pathway just more easily navigable and clear,” Weise says. “Working learners want a way to chart a clear path forward.” Certain pathways are not easily navigable or discovered and endless choices often only stall progress.  

The best learning leaders are in tune with their organization and its people to take an active role in the training and development of their workforce. Employees are just looking for their employer to help them take the next step in their career. “It’s a challenge to say that we should expect a public or private education system to meet the needs of every employer,” Warn says. “I think the employer needs to take an active role, and they’re best suited because they’re closest to the skills and know what’s really needed.”

CLOs now have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the new workplace. With the transition to a workplace more reliant on technology, combined with the long-reported skills gap, the opportunity for learning leaders to take charge of the skills of their employees is now. 

Employees are more than eager to skill up and make themselves more desirable and therefore earn more for themselves. The end of the skills gap comes down to the willingness of learning leaders and organizations to help workers meet present and future skills.

It is necessary to move beyond traditional development in unprecedented times and as more alternative development methods arise. The future of work can be one where human talent is sharpened by the developments of time.

This article was originally published by Chief Learning Officer, Talent Management’s sister publication.