How Innovative Employers Will Invest Their Education & Learning Dollars In 2021

COVID-19 upended life as we knew it. But in addition to changing everything overnight in 2020, the pandemic had a clarifying effect. It both crystallized and accelerated societal and economic changes that were already underway. In that way, we will not only continue to feel the pandemic’s impact throughout 2021, but well beyond.

This is especially true when it comes to employer efforts surrounding talent development. The pressing need for education and reskilling hasn’t gone away with this looser job market. Quite the opposite — it has only increased as markets and jobs shift rapidly and workers struggle to keep pace. Now more than ever, upskilling and reskilling have become and will continue to be strategic business priorities.

In response, I expect to see three trends gather steam: career advancement will become the new touchstone for diversity, equity, and inclusion; online education and training will stay in a big way; and employers won’t want to choose between “human” skills and technical skills.

Helping frontline workers advance through education will be a core DEI strategy

Ninety-six percent of CEOs surveyed by Deloitte say DE&I is a strategic priority for the coming year. But to make good on their promises, these companies can’t simply poach employees from one another. Internal mobility pathways are critical. Black and Hispanic workers are overrepresented in the frontline compared to the general workforce, yet have limited job mobility.

Any strategy for diversity needs to include a plan to help frontline workers advance. Among six major frontline industries, including grocery and general merchandise, trucking and warehousing, and healthcare, 41% of workers are people of color, while only 34% of frontline supervisors are. 

Many of the most innovative companies have already been supporting diversity through well designed education and learning programs. At McDonald’s, for example, two-thirds of participants in its Archways to Opportunity program are people of color, and more than 60% are women. Walmart has seen similar participation in its Live Better U program, where 47% of its associates are people of color. 

In 2021, I’ll be looking for companies who are applying best practices for supporting first-generation learners of color to be successful. As president and CEO of SHRM Johnny Taylor outlined, “Switching to new models of employer-funded education — where the employer pays up front, employees can access coaching, and the focus is to build skills for the future — can vastly improve access, career mobility, and talent development without necessarily increasing the cost.” 

Employer-funded education and learning will stay online, even as the pandemic subsides 

The past few years have witnessed a flourishing of high-quality, low-cost training and education programs, many of them online. They are laser-focused on the needs of working learners, often providing flexible learning pathways, more frequent start dates, and wrap-around services like success coaching. But before COVID-19, these programs lacked public awareness and mass interest to reach a meaningful scale. The pandemic has underscored their significance, as we desperately search for solutions that will help millions of Americans gain the skills and confidence to succeed in the workplace.

Discover Financial Services, for example, saw a 25% increase in the number of employees participating in its fully paid online bachelor’s degree programs last year, and Jennifer Burns, Discover’s senior director of global brand marketing, expects the momentum around online education and training to continue. “In 2021, I see a continued emphasis on virtual learning and additional breakthroughs in creative ways to engage learners outside of the traditional web-based platforms,” said Burns.

Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion and people officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill, also expects her company to put a bigger focus on technology this year, including virtual training, analytics, and other tools to support employees. “As technology continues to be a more essential part of our daily lives, it has also become a valuable resource for training and problem solving,” said Andrada. 

Employers won’t want to choose between “human” skills and technical skills. They need both. 

In an era where machines are getting better at being machines, the primary aim of education must be to help humans get better at being human. And ensuring that education is helping a broad swath of Americans develop uniquely “human” skills, like communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, is increasingly important both for helping individuals advance in their careers, and for helping companies remain competitive.

In high-growth organizations, as well as those with rapidly changing business needs, more ‘human’ skills and the ability to connect, empathize, engage, and inspire other people will be critical to building trust and driving innovation,” said Andrada. 

Usually, we tend to relate these skills with a broad, liberal education, instead of associating it as a kind of “training” we could offer to frontline workers. But this way of thinking is built around a series of false dichotomies: Frontline vs.professional, workers vs. leaders, career training vs. broad education. This ignores the reality that Americans, and their employers, need education that is both immediately beneficial and long-lasting. To do any job well requires both technical and human skills. 

Pathstream, for example, offers programs for in-demand digital skills. But its teaching approach prioritizes self-direction, problem solving, and communication—not just getting students to circle the right answer on a test page. One assignment from its online Data Analytics program takes the form of an email from a hypothetical manager. The manager needs help to solve a business problem. Students are required to interpret what’s being asked of them, work out the problem, and then use SQL to clean, transform, and analyze company data, and ‘present’ the solution back to the manager. 

There is no right answer to this assignment, but through the use of human skills, the process in which students learn is as important, if not more, than the content. Students learning such durable skills can immediately leverage them in their current jobs and over the long haul throughout their careers.

It would be foolish to try and predict 2021, given all the tumultuous twists and turns last year delivered. But if employers continue to think strategically about their talent development, these three trends play a significant role in shaping the recovery of both businesses and individuals.