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Invest In The Future - But Don't Give Up On Workers of Today

There's been a lot of talk about how public schools in America are in desperate need of an upgrade, and Silicon Valley is starting to show interest in applying technology to solve the problem.
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There's been a lot of talk about how public schools in America are in desperate need of an upgrade, and Silicon Valley is starting to show interest in applying technology to solve the problem.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan donated $20M to help school districts across the US bring high-speed internet into their classrooms. AltSchool is opening brand-new elementary schools promising an individualized experience, while companies like Tynker, TapToLearn, and Wonder Workshop are introducing kids to technology earlier than ever. Schools are even starting to pop up on the Silicon Valley campuses of tech mainstays like Oracle.

I applaud the tech community for their commitment to preparing future generations for careers in the 21st-century workplace - but what about the millions of working-age Americans struggling to keep up with changing technology and the growing skills gap those changes are creating today?

The "21st-century workplace" isn't some futuristic concept we need to plan ahead for; it's already here. With globalization and labor automation more commonplace than ever before, companies are desperate to find employees with current tech skills as well as those who understand how business is conducted across borders.

We can't afford to wait for better-suited graduates to enter the workforce 10+ years from now. The next generation of workers needs a modern education, but they also need parents with jobs.

While the unemployment rate may have fallen to an eight-year low in January, we also have a record number of job openings. This may sound positive, but it reveals a disconnect between people looking for work and companies looking for talent. According to the latest report by the Social Security Administration, more than half of all US workers currently earn less than $30,000 a year, which means a lot of employed people are stuck in crummy, low-paying jobs. Moreover, many of those low-wage workers simply don't have access to the education and skills training that would qualify them for better jobs.

Even workers comfortable in good jobs don't have a sense of security anymore. Great employees are the lifeblood of great companies, and in today's knowledge-based economy this is more true than ever. At the same time, though, today's "great" employee is quickly outdated with the next update of tomorrow.

For companies, hiring employees of every age who are willing, able, and excited to learn new skills is now vital to maintaining a competitive edge. These employees continue to make valuable contributions over the course of their careers, even as their roles change to meet new market demands.

Retaining these lifelong learners -- and creating an environment that continues to attract them -- means providing the resources to pursue skills growth. It also means fostering environments conducive to continuous learning and giving employees generous access to training programs on platforms they can access from anywhere and anytime.

Of course, providing the resources is only half the battle.

Companies can provide every educational resource under the sun, but employees are the ones who ultimately must use them. Employees must be engaged and actively want to learn. They expect to consume educational content just like they consume every other kind of content -- as on-demand, interactive video that is accessible across devices.

In addition, educational programs should expand people's areas of expertise. Workers should be encouraged to explore skills potentially unrelated to their work but delivered in a way that demonstrates relevance. For example, everyone can benefit from learning new project management skills, but the way you deliver training to an engineer is not necessarily the most effective way to train a marketer or salesperson. Ultimately, programs should be tailored to meet the unique skills of the individual.

Not every company can build its own training platform. However, when the democratization of educational tools and resources is taken into account, it is possible for every company to make significant strides in reskilling their employees and setting them up for ongoing success in today's rapidly-changing workplace.

Just as investing in the workforce of the future is key to staying competitive in the long term, so too is investing in the workforce of today. In our eagerness to solve for the needs of tomorrow's workers, let's not forget the people who can keep the economy humming while that next generation skills up.