Addressing automation pt. 3: Creating space for lifelong learning

Jul 9, 2018 · 8 min read

By Ehud Paz and Kelsa Trom

As artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies rapidly progress, there’s been intense, sometimes fearful, discussion around a simple, honest question: Will workers be replaced? In this three-part series, we will address the realities of automation from the perspective of an impacted worker and shine a design lens on how we might shift the conversation to be more inclusive and productive. (And none of these articles were written by a robot, we promise.) Read the first article here and the second one here.

While technology may be shaking up work as we know it, innovation has also been making its way into workforce development and education for some time. It feels like we can find nearly anything we want to learn as long as we have an internet connection:

· Thousands of online courses, a whole ecosystem of digital learning platforms, education technologies and experimental new programs — many of which are free.

· Sector-based training programs such as WorkAdvance targeted toward lower-skilled workers have shown promising results.

· Open architectures for education course design.

· AI-powered services improving the matching of talent to openings.

· Social media-enabled new ways to form, join and cultivate communities (albeit with unintended consequences).

Can’t we all just sign up for coding bootcamps, a local program at a community college or a MOOC and be fine?

Remember Amy from our previous piece? Amy is a clerical employee at a financial services firm, and a large chunk of her job is at risk of being automated by a slew of existing technologies.

Let’s say Amy is able to get over the hurdles of seeing that technological change will automate much of her current job and she accepts that she needs to adapt. She now has to navigate a giant ecosystem of strength finders, course libraries, coaches, training programs, financial aid options and job boards. Each combination presents different tradeoffs of time and money from do-it-yourself low cost options to highly structured programs that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. On top of this overwhelming menu of often disconnected options, she also needs to figure out how to maintain a steady income, health insurance for her family, find time to drive her younger son to practice, support her older child preparing for college and help out with her aging parents.

On the surface, it may feel like there is nothing new about this scenario. Switching careers or reorienting when faced with possible displacement has always been hard with potential long-lasting implications. Today’s ecosystem presents a key difference: getting training and setting out on a new career path is no longer enough. Work is more fluid. Skills, roles and job descriptions continue to evolve rapidly. Employers and potential employees are having a hard time finding a common language to communicate with each other as they sort through increasingly unstructured career paths.

Not only is traversing this shifting environment challenging, we can never really “settle down” once we begin to navigate it. Employees have to keep learning and adapting more and more — and at a faster clip. For instance, engineering degrees went from a half-life of 35 years in 1930 to about 10 years in 1960. That was decades ago. Talk to anyone in software today and they will tell you it feels like there is a new skill, new tool or new methodology they need to learn every week.

Here’s what workers like Amy are up against: the classic notion of “career pathways” may no longer be a realistic way to think about work. There is just less certainty around the stability of our career choices and less straightforward answers to “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Like most of us in the wider workforce, Amy will likely need to keep adapting for the rest of her working life.

We can talk all day about an ideal state when humans and machines function in seamless harmony — but, humbly, we owe it to workers to connect the dots between today’s workforce and the increasingly automated future. Here are a few starting points to addressing our major challenge: How do we help someone like Amy stay relevant in the workforce when work can feel like such a moving target?

Partner across industry lines

For some time now, business leaders have been talking more about how they are competing for talent across industry lines. We are also seeing compelling cross-industry partnerships that take on big challenges like healthcare. Let’s embrace this trend and integrate it with how workers learn new skills.

What if organizations across sectors could create shared learning experiences? For example, imagine if someone learning data analytics or cyber security could try out different roles in consumer goods, healthcare, and in an energy company as part of training. This model has been used for years as part of internships, but maybe we can extend it further. Providing cross-pollination and exposure to different cultures, ways of working and environments could help employees better explore relevant job types and develop more durable skills. For businesses it could help create more robust talent networks for in-demand skills across industries, helping organizations better prepare people for emerging business needs. Professional services powerhouses in particular (like Accenture) are well-suited to deliver these learning experiences through their vast network of clients and partners across sectors. Local workforce and economic development organizations can also help forge partnerships to create rotation programs with education providers and employers.

Design for the whole person

Over the last few years, online education in the United States has continued to grow while overall enrollment in higher education has declined. Programs boast faster and more intense “upskilling” to respond to companies’ needs and close the distance from learning to earning. However, watching videos, taking tests and completing capstone assignments can fall short of helping someone adapt to a new work environment and re-shaping their life around it. Many who have been out of a school setting for years may also need to rediscover how they learn in their current life context. Excellent investigative pieces have explored federal and state workforce retraining and some of the silicon-valley inspired workforce development programs shedding light on the need for a more personal approach and emotional support during job training (in addition to skill-building and financial support).

Put plainly, we need to think about the person as more than just a “a student,” “an employee,” or “a candidate” in order to create the optimal conditions for learning. The same goes for how we think about groups of people in a training program. Groups can shift from being a “class” to being more of a support team that develops collaboration skills and critical resiliency skills to manage change. With the right guidance, team members can help each other adapt to the different expectations of different kinds of work and the life changes around them. They can support each other with day-to-day realities like time management, accountability and even things like transportation. Solving problems in a team context can help hone and translate the critical “future of work skills” like complex problem solving, coordination, and flexibility into different possibilities. Extending team relationships to a network that helps create connections to new people for continued growth and mentorship can help fill the void left by the dwindling of traditional unions.

Reconnect learning and earning

Apprenticeships have historically played a pivotal role in workforce development, but for decades they have been on a steady decline in the United States (despite success in countries Germany and Switzerland.) If we will have to continue to train for the rest of our working lives — how might we reimagine the apprenticeship to meet 21st century needs, both for workers and for organizations? Could we design a model that supports the notion that we will all be life-long apprentices?

The internet and digital technologies have fueled an explosion of access, democratizing information at scale. Equally compelling is something else that digital tech has been remarkably good at — especially with the maturation of machine learning: distribution. Marketplaces and platforms in everything from consumer goods, online dating, lending, volunteering and real estate have gotten exceedingly good at connecting supply and demand. Why not apply this to workforce development?

We could start by examining unused benefits in elite organizations: unused vacation days, training stipends, wellness points, and other benefits. In addition to driving more awareness and accountability, could we more effectively distribute these unused benefits to those who need assistance to fund continued learning while earning? There may also be inventive ways to structure benefits and policies such as 529k plans where employers match employee contributions with funding (by dollar or by credit) or with time to learn (by hour.)

Clever algorithms and policies will, of course, need to be built on the right foundations. Given some of the stigma associated with apprenticeships, creating the apprenticeship of the future will require a change in culture and a shift in the tactics, focus and strategy behind learning and development programs across organizations.

When the onus is on workers alone, as it often is today, chances are they’re less likely to explore and pick up new skills on their own — they’re more likely to focus on what they need to do to in a day’s work. Learning modules that are organized in online portals or sporadic trainings, while valuable, will not be enough. Learning needs to be woven into the culture, the operations and the business plans of organizations to keep the skills of their people relevant and in effect, their business. Clear incentives need to be created to give people the space and time to learn and the coaching on what to learn. Employee benefits, assignments, peer connections and learning resources can be more tightly integrated to create personal learning experiences that build on each other over time versus feeling like disconnected “learning modules.”

The notion many of us grew up with where education ends with the finality of “graduating” just doesn’t work with the realities of work and life in the digital era. The resources and technologies are out there for us to change this, but it will require breaking boundaries in how we design for learning. Technology is already breaking many of these boundaries: between industries, between the physical and the digital, and between our personal and professional lives. It’s time to take a bold step and close the gap between learning and earning. If we get it right, the phrase “I am going back to school” will one day feel like a cliché from the 20th century that we will smile upon.

Ehud Paz (his friends call him “Eudi”) is a strategist at Fjord New York, focused on designing for the future of work and education. Kelsa Trom is a content designer with a background in learning and development and a passion for interdisciplinary growth. She is based in New York.

Illustration by Annie Lin, a visual designer at Fjord Austin.

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.


Written by


Design and Innovation from Accenture Interactive

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.

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