Upskilling: Why It’s Important and How Higher Education Can Help

With every passing decade society strays further from the traditional linear life. No longer is it the norm to attend roughly 20 years of pre-career education, work for 40 years in the same industry, and then enjoy retirement for the remainder of one’s life. People are generally living longer and retirement is economically evasive for most, requiring individuals across industries, professions, and geographies to embrace a learning-integrated life—expanding their skill set and adapting to technological advancements in order to stay relevant in the workforce.

The shift from the traditional linear life to a learning-integrated life is an inevitable consequence of technological progress and more adults are transitioning between multiple careers within their lifetime, according to new research from D2L.

Therefore, the importance for individuals to continuously acquire and demonstrate new skills in the rapidly changing workforce is paramount. However, much work needs to be done for the current systems of education and professional development to support individuals in their lifelong learning process. 

To better understand how the workforce feels about current upskilling initiatives, D2L surveyed 500 U.S. adults and 500 Canadian adults to uncover how employees view the value of continuous education. The report, Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education, builds on a series of reports D2L has published in the past decade, specifically exploring the challenges and opportunities higher education institutions face. The report also offers recommendations for employers, higher education institutions, and governments to make continuous upskilling simpler and more accessible. 

Key findings of the report include:

  • Continuous upskilling is not the norm—yet: 80% of U.S. adults expressed some interest in pursuing additional skills training in the next year but only 35% had pursued some form of professional development/upskilling
  • There is no clear preference for training providers: 15% of U.S. adults said they are not sure where to go if they need to build additional professional or technical skills that are job- or industry-specific.
  • Micro-credentials may hold promise, but they’re not yet widely understood by individuals: 30% of U.S. adults didn’t know how to describe what a micro-credential is in response to an open-ended question.
  • Financial assistance and help comparing different credentials are the most requested forms of support: 56% of those surveyed said financial support would be the most useful form of help to enroll in online courses/certificate programs.

Findings indicate that individuals value professional development and have the desire to learn. The report shows that individuals are uncertain how to find relevant micro-credential programs and often don't understand how they relate to career advancement. Many individuals indicate the need for a streamlined way to find and compare upskilling programs, with roughly two in five of respondents saying they would like to pursue upskilling courses online. Findings also illustrate that individuals would be more likely to pursue upskilling if they were granted financial support from employers, especially since the SCOTUS student loan decision. 

“We’ve always offered a couple courses here and there, but there’s never really been a strategic intentional effort to say this is important and we will focus resources, energy and time behind this population of students and work with our partners to meet the workforce needs of our region,” said Dr. Shawnda Floyd, Provost of Dallas College. “There are conversations going on for the first time locally, regionally, nationally about looking at our funding and financial models and changing them because they don’t incorporate any component of noncredit or continuing education.”

The data affirms that higher education institutions must recognize that the traditional learner, the 18-21 year old, enrolling in higher education is no longer the only, or even necessarily the focal, student. Institutions must adapt to this new reality by making further investments in continuing education and skills development. 

“We are getting out of our own way about being transactional, about being high-minded about four-year degrees being the only way to succeed,” Dr. Floyd continued. “We need to continue and produce and support lifelong learning like we’ve already said we’ve done.”

Higher education institutions must continue to invest in continuing education offerings, introduce and scale micro-credentials, think holistically about the student experience, offer avenues for support, and develop essential partnerships with employers to best support individuals as they lead a learning-integrated life.