As my time as director of UpSkill America comes to a close, I’ve enjoyed reflecting on how far the UpSkill America movement has come over the last seven years and what more can be done.
Let me begin with a reminder of why UpSkill America came into being in January of 2015. By 2014, the 2008 recession was a distant memory for many high-income earners, but not so for the 20 million frontline and entry-level workers who had seen job opportunities vanish and incomes decline or stagnate. Additionally, there was concern that employer-provided training had decreased as many companies had slashed their education and training budgets during the recession. There was also data showing that these cuts were hitting workers earning low wages the hardest as training and tuition reimbursement programs were targeted to more highly educated and highly paid employees.
The Obama Administration joined with leading workforce development organizations, employers, unions, and education and training providers to reverse these trends. And, on January 21, 2015, UpSkill America was launched as part of the Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) at the Aspen Institute. The program was initially under the leadership of John Colborn, who led Skills for America’s Future. I joined on July 6th, transitioning from HR Policy Foundation, one of the founding partners of UpSkill America. What a seven years it has been!
I knew from the beginning that the success and lasting impact of the initiative wouldn’t be because of what I did, but would depend on the commitment, work, and investment of the companies and organizations who would question the status quo and change business practices so frontline and entry-level workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, would have more access to improved education and training programs that would build their skills so they could advance in the workplace.
So, what is the impact of the UpSkill America network to date?
I suppose the most basic place to start is to highlight how common the term “upskilling” has become. When UpSkill America was created, the term upskilling was rarely used. Now, my inbox is full of programs, studies, conferences, and daily articles written on the topic. If nothing else, the UpSkill America network has played an important role in instilling upskilling into the discussion, strategy, and practices of corporate America and the education and training supply chain that supports them in this work.
Far more important than just talk about upskilling, the UpSkill America network has led deep, meaningful change in company practices. Thanks to the work of our partner employers, education providers, workforce development organizations, and EdTech companies, millions of America’s frontline and entry-level workers (including more than three million workers in retail alone) now have access to employer-paid education and training opportunities that didn’t exist in 2015, including industry recognized certificates and college degree programs.
Put another way: UpSkill America partner companies and organizations have largely created a viable new pathway for millions of Americans to obtain certifications and college degrees at no cost. Previously, individuals had two options: pay for their own college education (through savings or loans) or get a scholarship (or some combination of the two). Though these two traditional options have helped about a third of the population earn a college degree, it has also led to about $1.4 trillion in student load debt and left about two-thirds of the population without a degree. Thanks to the employers who are paying for certificates and degrees, earning a college degree without taking on debt is now a viable option for many.
This progress can be directly attributed to the decisions within some companies to make more strategic investments in frontline and entry-level workers, aided by the support of education and training providers and fueled by innovation in the EdTech space, a changing labor market, and a generation of workers demanding companies invest in their growth and development. At UpSkill America, it has been exciting to have played a role by informing, motivating, and assisting employers in making these investments by studying developments in the education and training field, promoting new practices that expanded opportunity for workers, and building learning networks that make connections between employers who have implemented these programs and those who wish to.
This movement has brought on other important changes that are worth noting as well:
- Many employers are now paying education institutions directly, eliminating onerous and discriminatory tuition reimbursement processes which left those earning low wages largely unable to participate.
- Employers are partnering more with colleges designed for working adults that help them move through to graduation more quickly because programs are more flexible and award credit for prior learning, including company-provided training.
- More programs are available online, allowing workers to focus on learning at times that work for them.
- Working students are graduating with valuable work experience.
- Companies have rewritten many of their internal policies around which workers are eligible for employer-funded tuition and when they are eligible. Now, many workers are eligible from day one or shortly thereafter, with benefits being offered to part-time as well as full-time workers. We’ve even seen some companies extend benefits to the family members of employees.
- Repayment contract clauses have been eliminated.
- Employers have added critical support services for students including career counseling, success coaching, and job placement assistance to help working learners make more informed degree choices, push through to graduation, and reap the rewards of their work upon graduation.
By any definition, this has been great progress and I’m so proud to have been a part of it. Yet, so much more work remains. For example:
- Too few companies are investing in meaningful education and training programs for their employees that lead to advancement.
- We still have far too little data about the impact of these programs, who they are helping, and what changes need to be implemented to make them more impactful. (A shoutout to Walmart [a funder of UpSkill America] for being a leader in this area.)
- More needs to be done in companies so those who earn certificates and degrees are rewarded with advancement at work. If companies want to instill a culture of learning, employees need to see the direct tie between earning and a positive impact on their careers.
- Companies need to evaluate managers on their success in developing those in their chain of command, including connecting them to education and training that lead to development.
- Tuition assistance programs are an important piece of a company’s overall learning strategy, but they aren’t all of it. Companies with generous tuition benefit programs can’t check a box and be done with it. They must focus on building cultures of learning within their organizations where learning is made available, is accessible, and is rewarded.
- It’s great that all of these online learning opportunities are now available, but people must have adequate access, technology, and digital skills to benefit. More must be done to build digital skills or inequity will be worse.
- We need to see continued improvement in the quality of jobs for frontline and entry-level workers to the point no company or individual has to settle for a bad job that they have to advance out of.
The last point I want to make is this: As great as these advancements in upskilling practices are, the programs remain separate, disconnected opportunities that jobseekers need to search out and may not know about until they have taken a job with a company. In order for these programs to maximize their impact, they need to reach into their communities so jobseekers, individuals, and even the workforce, economic development, and education systems are better aware of them and build them into their strategic plans. The workforce system should be placing workers with employers that invest in the education and training of their workers. Economic developers should be prioritizing these companies for investments and should be counting graduates from these programs as they talk about the educational attainment of their region’s workforce. And high school guidance counselors should be knowledgeable about these programs as they meet with students who have little or no hope of affording a college degree at today’s tuition rates. I — no kidding — dream of the day that employers who invest in high-quality education and training for their workers come together in a transparent, easily identifiable affiliation that makes these opportunities more available for those who can most benefit from them.
Let me conclude by saying thanks for the opportunity to be a part of the UpSkill America network. It has been a great honor to have been a part of it. I look forward to watching the continued success of the initiative and all of EOP. Please feel free to reach out on LinkedIn to share your reflections with me or to follow my new work as I take these ideas and use them to build a digital upskilling network and learning culture in Ventura County. I would love to hear from you.
Tweet After seven years at the helm of @UpSkillAmerica, @Jaimen8r reflects on the growth of the #upskilling movement, its achievements for workers and businesses, and the work that remains to be done.
Tweet Thanks to @upskillamerica’s partners in business, education, and workforce development, millions of workers now have access to education and training opportunities that didn’t exist in 2015.
Tweet The #upskilling movement has brought important changes to company-funded education and training programs — including making them more accessible, flexible, holistic, and relevant for participating employees.
Tweet Too few companies invest in meaningful education and training programs for their employees, and workers often aren’t rewarded for participating. Instead, they should see a direct and positive impact on their careers.
Tweet “When @UpSkillAmerica was created, the term #upskilling was rarely used. Now, my inbox is full of programs, studies, conferences, and daily articles written on the topic.” @Jaimen8r
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UpSkill America is an employer-led movement that promotes training and advancement practices to help workers progress in their careers and move into better-paying jobs. UpSkill America is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.
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