Preparing People for the Future of Work

Will Houghteling
8 min readFeb 4, 2020

How technology will impact work, and how employers should respond

Executive Summary

  • The impact of AI is misunderstood — AI will primarily automate tasks, not eliminate entire jobs
  • Given this, there will be enormous corporate demand for upskilling, not reskilling
  • Employers are the new educators — they need to help people develop skills for the jobs of the future
  • Employers will struggle to do this with current options — universities are out-of-touch, learning libraries (Udemy, LinkedIn Learning) are not engaging, Learning & Development (L&D) departments are under resourced
  • Strive is building a platform for Upskilling-as-a-Service to help employers prepare employees for the jobs of the future

History Rhymes — The Rise of ATMs and Impact on Labor

When the first ATMs were introduced in the 1970s, people panicked that the rise of these “Automated Teller Machines” would eliminate jobs for millions of bank tellers.

But bank teller jobs didn’t disappear. In fact, they increased.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (via AEI)

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Automating the most rote parts of the job allowed banks to service each branch with 13 tellers rather than 21, enabling them to expand and add additional branches.

The tellers’ jobs weren’t eliminated, but their work looked much different — less cash handling, and more complex customer service. Fewer routine transactions, and more emotional labor that machines cannot complete. In order for tellers to prepare for this new work, banks retrained them — teaching them about new financial products and different customer challenges.

As we read “The Robots Are Coming for Our Jobs” stories in every newspaper, it’s helpful to look back at history as a guide for what’s to come. As Mark Twain (purportedly) said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

The Impact of AI on The Future of Work

The popular narrative spread by politicians and pundits alike is that the rise of AI and advances in technology will automate and eliminate millions of jobs. We’ll have fleets of driverless cars and trucks, and no work for the five million Americans who earn a living driving. We’ll have Amazon Go stores in every city, and no work for America’s 3.4 million cashiers. This is ATM automation on an even grander scale.

Adoption of new technology will certainly transform the labor market, but the results are more nuanced than the hyperbolic headlines predict.

Researchers at Stanford and The Brookings Institute measured how people at different wage levels will be impacted by AI. They found that contrary to popular opinion, more high skill workers will be impacted by AI than low skill workers. Low skill work is often manually intensive and requires sophisticated physical dexterity, whereas high skill work is more computationally intensive and thus easier to automate through AI.

Data from The Brookings Institute

The bottom line is: AI will primarily eliminate tasks, changing parts of jobs, not replacing entire jobs.

A McKinsey 2017 study posited that less than 5% of current work will be fully automated in the coming years, but automation will change how 60% of occupations do their work.

Lawyers will use AI to automate doc review, spending more time with clients and on creative problem solving. Doctors will use AI to automatically scan x-rays, spending their time on patient care and complex surgeries. The doctors and lawyers will still have jobs, but the composition of their work will change — less rote work, more collaborative and interpersonal work.

Given the automation of tasks, the majority of retraining needed is on-the-job upskilling, not out-of-work reskilling.

Data from World Economic Forum

There will still be a need for training people for entirely new careers — Lambda preparing truck drivers to be software engineers or Guild training cashiers to be nurses — but this represents a minority of the workforce. As the World Economic Forum data above shows, the majority of retraining needed is shorter, immersive programs helping people learn new skills on the job rather than having them leave their job to prepare for and find a new one.

How will companies upskill-at-scale?

Companies currently have three main options for Upskilling-at-Scale:

1 | Partner with Universities

Universities are supposed to prepare students for work. That said, they are poorly positioned to provide employer-centric upskilling:

  1. University curriculum is outdated — University faculty are incentivized to research, not teach, and thus universities systematically underinvest in developing new curriculum to better prepare students for life post-school. For example, the wave of software engineering bootcamps happened almost entirely outside of the traditional university structure (General Assembly, Devbootcamp, Flatiron, Lambda, Holberton, Galvanize, HackReactor etc all have no university affiliation). When universities are involved, it has been to provide a brand for white-label bootcamp provider Trilogy.
  2. Universities struggle to reach and teach working learners — Most research universities are built for on campus learners. Students are expected to visit physical classrooms and dedicate days to problem sets or weeks for final exams and papers. Non-research universities (community colleges, for-profit colleges) struggle with low graduation rates (<40% of CC students graduate within six years) and do not have trusted relationships with Fortune 500+ companies.
  3. Employee trust in universities is low — American trust in universities is down significantly (and feedback is split along partisan lines).
  4. Employer trust in universities is low — While 92% of Chief Academic Officers believe that universities prepare students for the workplace, only ~60% of employers agree. Employers think that universities are increasingly out of touch with the needs of the workplace.

2 | Leverage “Learning Libraries”

The second option for outsourced upskilling-at-scale is for employers to leverage online learning libraries — content platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Udemy for Business, Coursera, and Udacity.

These platforms have an enormous corpus of content and are designed for maximum efficiency — the video + quiz model requires no human instructors, scales across offices, time zones, and languages, all with negligible marginal cost.

Unfortunately, these platforms suffer from a completion crisis — students are not engaged and do not finish self-paced online learning, as the chart below shows.

Program Completion by Learning Platform and User Base

Data from Inside Higher Ed, Might Could, and the Udacity Blog

Learning is a lot like exercise — the canonical New Years Resolution everyone says they’ll do but no one sticks with. The most important element for success in any learning experience is not the quality of content nor the efficiency of instruction. The key to success is the participant’s commitment to their growth, both upfront (buy-in) and ongoing (persistence). Learning libraries fail to motivate and support students — lecturing is great for teaching, but bad for learning.

Learning libraries are great in theory, but bad in practice — learners need a more social, engaging, active approach to learning.

3 | Use Internal L&D Departments

The final option for upskilling-at-scale is for companies to entrust their internal L&D department.

Successful upskilling programs have three parts:

  1. Understanding of what skills will be valued in an organization in the future
  2. Understanding of the existing employee population’s skills and abilities
  3. Capability to train existing employees on the new skills

Internal L&D teams should best understand both the skills needed in the future and the competencies of the existing employees.

L&D has struggled on #3 — building effective upskilling experiences for employees. As Degreed’s “How the Workforce Learns” 2019 report showed, 80% of senior corporate leaders say L&D needs to be more innovative, and internal employee Net Promoter Score (NPS) for their L&D departments is -25.

These low scores are not necessarily reflective of inherent incapability of L&D departments. Most execs have not viewed L&D as strategically important and thus have not committed the resources — curriculum developers, instructional designers, program managers, facilitators / coaches, learning engineers — needed for these departments to truly succeed.

Strive — Upskilling-as-a-Service

We believe that the rise of AI and automation makes corporate retraining a necessity, not a nice to have.

We believe that employers are the new educators. Employers have an unequaled understanding of the skills needed for employees to survive and thrive given technological advancement. They can assess their existing employees and build gap-closing learning paths. And their employees trust them and know that only their employers can guarantee jobs post-upskilling.

We believe L&D departments will be on the hook for transformative upskilling. The existing approaches are shadow solutions — executive education that’s a perk, not performance enhancing, and online learning libraries that everyone can access but no one actually uses. L&D departments need a partner who can help them define the skills of the future, assess talent, and build learning journeys for in-demand skills.

That’s what we’re doing at Strive — we’re building a platform that allows employers to easily launch, manage and measure engaging and effective skill building experiences.

To start, we are building a platform to facilitate management training and leadership development. Management and leadership — motivating and inspiring teammates, giving feedback, having hard conversations — is AI-proof emotional labor that’s increasingly in demand (LinkedIn Report). Nearly every company needs this — leadership development is a $14B domestic category (Capstone) — and companies are frustrated by existing outdated solutions.

Over time our platform will expand to support companies looking to upskill their employees in additional skills, both in-demand soft skills that matter across job functions, and in-demand digital skills like data science, cybersecurity and more.

This blog turned into a novella, so in the next post I will share more about both our vision for the in-demand skills employers should teach, as well as how Strive’s platform helps people develop new skills by reaching them in the flow of work.

We believe that preparing people for the future of work is among the most important societal challenges of the next decade, impacting tens of millions of Americans and nearly every major company’s bottom line. If you want to work on this, we’re hiring.

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Will Houghteling

Bridging school and work @ Strive, x-Minerva, Google/YouTube, Harvard