How Can Lifelong Learning Help Transform Training?

Companies need to view training as a fundamental business asset to keep employees engaged and their skills competitive, adaptable, and sharp as jobs become more specialized.

Jobs of the emerging economy will continue to grow in complexity and specialization, requiring highly specialized skills to perform. However, four out of five CEOs around the world are “‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned” that they won’t be able to find the right talent to fill these increasingly specialized job roles. As this skills gap widens, the war for skilled talent will become even more fierce.

In response, employers are increasing their investment in employee training. One study found that prior to the pandemic, almost 80 percent of manufacturers were ramping up their workforce training efforts with an eye on the skills gap. The logic behind this is sound—by continuously improving employee skill sets with on-the-job training, companies are guarding against knowledge gaps as they grow their workforce.

Employers are beginning to realize that formal education shouldn’t end after college, and should instead exist as a continuous feature of every worker’s career. Rather than searching for candidates who fit a certain educational background, employers increasingly are looking for candidates who are open to training and continuing workplace education. On the flip side, candidates are attracted to employers that make learning and development (L&D) a priority to ensure growth in their career. This continuing education is known as “lifelong learning.”

Accelerating Lifelong Learning at Work

We’re at the onset of a revolution in workplace training. The theory of lifelong learning is transforming how companies view the function of L&D, and providing increased career opportunities and mobility to a larger portion of the workforce. New technology is helping deliver training to workforces at scale, and improving outcomes at every level.

Of course, continuing education has been around for as long as jobs have. Options for continued education exist in the form of seminars, supplementary courses, literature, and so on. In recent years, bootcamps and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) also have emerged as viable options. And employer-sponsored, on-the-job vocational training is nothing new.

What is new is the increased emphasis on technology-driven on-the-job training that continuously teaches new skills, measurably improves outcomes, and provides increased avenues for career advancement by unlocking hidden potential with data-driven assessments. Lifelong learning is all about upskilling and reskilling, and with new technology and new philosophies in corporate L&D, it’s changing the way organizations hire and evaluate their workforce talent.

Lifelong Learning and the Skills Gap

In a recent global survey, a majority of executives and managers cited hiring new talent as their most common tactic to address skills shortages. But in the next five years, business leaders are much more likely to cite skill building, rather than hiring, as the most effective way to close those gaps. One reason for this shift is that the skills and training job seekers have often don’t match the experience required for specialized jobs in the emerging economy.

For instance, a recent LinkedIn survey found about half of LinkedIn members don’t think their leaders are currently practicing soft skills such as emotional intelligence and effective communication well—despite those being the most in-demand skills in 2020 regardless of job function. Lifelong learning offers a solution. Instead of continuously searching for highly qualified external candidates, more and more companies are “upskilling” or “reskilling” their existing workforce to provide much-needed skills, promote from within, and fill desperately needed positions.

The Impact of Technology

Technology also is reshaping how organizations train their talent. Gone are the days of only offering classroom training or video lectures. With an increased focus on improving job-specific skills, providing more engaging experiences with higher retention rates, organizations are relying on advanced training solutions that fully immerse learners into environments where they can develop, hone, and improve skills in realistic on-the-job scenarios. As lifelong learning takes hold in the enterprise, breakthroughs in technology will contribute to managers leaning heavily on skill building (rather than hiring) to upskill their workforce.

Technology such as virtual reality, augmented reality, telepresence, and virtual interactivity all have been shown to boost retention, save money, and provide a more engaging “on-demand” experience. Using breakthrough virtual reality technology, for example, instructors can give employees on-the-job training that literally rewires the brain’s pathways. Such training can be implemented at scale across a diverse workforce and can achieve immediate, measurable results.

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal profiled Walmart’s use of immersive learning to train its employees in a scalable and standardized way. As the country’s largest private employer, the retailer needed to find a solution for training managers and associates across its nearly 4,600 U.S. stores. Furthermore, the solution could not result in lost productivity due to diverting employees away from their essential job functions for extended periods.

The company leveraged immersive learning to train associates how to stock shelves and use new pickup towers for online orders, among other areas. Most notably, Walmart was able to use virtual reality to simulate the stressful environment of doorbuster sales in a low-stakes environment. Walmart used virtual reality to roll out nationwide training that simulated the mad dash of a holiday rush, allowing new and even seasoned retail employees to train for extreme situations that would be difficult to mimic in the real world.

Immersive learning since has become ingrained in the lifelong learning philosophy at Walmart, and is a key reason for the company’s ability to retain an agile, competitive, well-trained workforce.

Impact on the Workforce

Jobs of the future will use different skills and have higher educational requirements. A recent report estimates that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. This seismic shift in the workforce, spurred by automation and machine learning, is being considered by some as a new “industrial revolution.”

As lifelong learning takes hold in the workplace, it’s also poised to have an effect on the workforce at large. As competition for skilled talent grows more intense, training now can become a differentiator for an organization, offering an employee experience more clearly focused on personal growth and career path development. Candidates for in-demand careers will begin to evaluate the long-term education options provided by their prospective employers.

There will be an increased desire for workers to continuously grow and develop—and to work for companies that invest in their people for this purpose. An investment in training likely will be one of the key benefits employees can offer. In order to be competitive in the emerging economy, companies need to view training as a fundamental business asset to keep employees engaged and their skills competitive, adaptable, and sharp as jobs become more specialized.

Dr. Michael Casale is chief science officer at Strivr. Dr. Casale is an expert on the science of the mind. His Ph.D. work as a cognitive neuroscientist led him to Strivr, where he develops immersive learning technology to shape the future of how people learn and train.