• A major talent shortage is affecting economies around the world – 69% of employers in the US are struggling to fill positions.
  • By 2025, half of all employees will need to be reskilled, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
  • Improving access to education for working adults through better funding and support could be one solution.

As we focus on the need to better educate more of the world’s young people for the momentous challenges of tomorrow, an equally urgent need cannot be forgotten: the critical imperative to educate adults for the challenges of today.

In an increasingly automated workplace, where AI-driven software is taking over lower-skilled occupations, people need to be constantly developing new creative, technical and leadership skills to keep pace.

The urgency of this need is reflected in the post-COVID skills crisis facing many economies. The US has a profound talent shortage, with 69% of employers saying they are struggling to fill positions (compared to just 14% in 2010) while UK employment vacancies have now reached a record high of 1.2 million.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum anticipates that half of all employees will need “reskilling” by 2025. Salesforce’s Global Digital Skills Index, released earlier this year, also revealed that 76% of respondents feel unprepared for a digital-first future of work.

Such realities on the ground, and such a state of mind around the world, are symptoms of a crisis that cannot be ignored. How, then, to address it?

How do we make it easier for working adults to reskill?

Although college remains a key way to acquire core skills, many people do not have the funds or flexibility to learn via traditional, full-time, on-campus college courses. Many people who want to learn new skills are not teenagers or students – they are adults who are already in work, and they may have families or children. They deserve the chance to develop skills and improve their earning ability. Increasingly our economies will need to enable this kind of lifelong learning.

Regrettably, the voice of this growing cohort of “frontline learners” is largely unheard in education. That’s why Chegg recently commissioned a study of working adults’ attitudes to reskilling while in work – and what they want to achieve. The study uncovered three main findings:

1. Remove financial barriers

Employer funding is the biggest factor in working people’s decisions about whether and how to pursue more education. In several head-to-head comparisons of different programmes, working adults consistently chose the fully-funded programme regardless of other factors (such as the qualification offered or the institution offering it). In fact, when the financial consideration of tuition costs was eliminated, most working adults said they would immediately take the opportunity to study further: 61% said they would pursue a “professional certificate” programme within the next year if it was fully funded by their employer.

2. Understand career motivators

Gaining a college degree is not a big motivator. This is because working adults more often want education to practically advance in their current field rather than to, for example, enable a new career pathway: 44% cited advancement versus 28% who hoped education would enable “career change.” Just 12% of respondents said earning a college degree was their top priority for an education programme.

3. Deliver flexible courses

Flexibility is key for working adults. When respondents were asked what their top three priorities were for an education programme (out of eight possibles), “flexible/self-paced courses” was ranked joint-second alongside “career and salary” advancement as the most important feature (28%), with only “affordable tuition” placed higher (42%). This relates to the fact that 56% said they expected to spend 15 hours or less studying per week.

Education providers and employers therefore need to think carefully about how they can structure courses around working adults. They need to offer practical study options to people whose circumstances require them to continue in work – not just to those who can take time out.

Enable equitable access to education for working adults

Employer reskilling – or upskilling – programmes should therefore aim to provide funding so that low- or medium-income workers can realistically commit to a course of study. They should also support considerable flexibility in how, where and when study is undertaken.

Although workers today face demands for increasingly specialized skills, they also have more opportunities to acquire them outside traditional learning pathways. If we can make that process easier, we could see a real transformation in frontline learning that will contribute enormously to the economic growth of the future.