Advocating for Tomorrow’s Lifelong Learners

Advocating for Tomorrow’s Lifelong Learners

Thriving in the Future of Work will require continual learning.

I think we’re up to the task. As our day-to-day lives have become more digitally driven, we’ve learned to adapt. We’ve learned to talk to our devices, put groceries in virtual carts, and look at our wrists for more than just the time. We’ll figure it out, of that I’m fairly certain.

I’m more worried about how workers will pay for the learning they’ll need. 

Not long ago, a post-secondary education seemed like a wise investment. Now, the value of that investment is diminishing. A degree will no longer be enough for an entire career. Making what once seemed wise, questionable. 

Even if today’s students go straight from high school to the workforce, avoiding a mountain of debt, I’m curious how they’ll be able to invest in continued learning later. Particularly after they’ve purchased a home or started a family.

It doesn’t take much Googling to discover that for most workers, wages are stagnant. In some instances, inflation has outpaced wages, thereby decreasing earnings. When wages aren’t rising, making ends meet is difficult. It’s hard to see how workers will be able to invest in their own learning.

It also doesn’t take much Googling to discover that employers have significantly reduced their investment in on-the-job training. Employers have also reduced the amount of tuition assistance they offer.

So, it would seem that workers aren’t in the best position to absorb the expense of lifelong learning. And, employers have been reducing their spending, indicating a reluctance to invest in workers’ skills.  

But, this state of affairs won’t serve anyone’s interests in the Future of Work. 

Which leaves me to wonder, who should bear the cost of continued learning? The workers? The employers? The government, perhaps?

While the government does spend money on education, that spending is mostly at the front-end of a worker’s career. There is considerably less government spending on education for mid-career workers.

Perhaps, we need to a rethink how we acquire our work skills. 

The Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute has developed a proposal. While I’m not certain it’s the best proposal, right now, it’s the only proposal I’ve seen. At least someone is starting the discussion. 

The proposal combines individual, employer, and government contributions to fund a Lifelong Learning and Training Account. These accounts would operate much like a 401(k). Workers could add up to $2,000.00 a year. The government would then match that, up to $2,000.00 a year. Employers could also choose to contribute, up to $2,000.00 per year.

If each participant —worker, government, employer — contributed the maximum amount, that’s $6,000.00 a year toward learning.

For workers to get the maximum government match of $2,000.00, they would need to contribute around $38.00 a week. Seems reasonable.  

What seems less reasonable is the lack of any requirement for employers to participate. Not even at the reasonable rate of $38.00 a week.

Perhaps, then, in reality, workers would only have $4,000.00 per year. That doesn’t seem as promising.  

Again, these Lifelong Learning Accounts are merely one proposal. But a proposal we should consider and discuss.

And, as we think about whether these accounts are a good idea, we also need to think about how much money workers should have to spend just to prepare themselves for work. Maybe workers shouldn’t be the only ones investing in their skill sets. It seems to me that employers should hold some financial responsibility for maintaining a skilled workforce.

In my mind, the key to developing a system for lifelong learning is creating one that doesn’t put the financial burden solely on the shoulders of workers. Certainly, workers need to make their own contribution. Have some skin in the game, as they say. But, I fear, without advocacy for tomorrow’s workers, years from now our kids will find that they’ve become lifetime learners with a lifetime of debt. 

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