The battle for great talent and skills is stronger than ever. Upskilling programs and partnerships can help solve this challenge, while creating opportunity onramps for people to move into better jobs.
Jaime S. Fall serves as director at Upskill America at the Aspen Institute, an employer-led movement to expand opportunity for America’s workers, and ultimately, improve our economy. In this podcast, Fall shared with me why we need upskilling programs, examples of companies that have benefitted from them, and what works and what doesn’t. Take a listen:
If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.
Greg Thomas: Consider these two facts about the U.S. economy: Millions of Americans work in low wage jobs that don’t offer learning opportunities to advance on to more skilled roles, and millions of jobs remain unfilled across the country because employers can’t find people with the right skills.
I’m Greg Thomas from Workday. Today on the Workday Podcast, we’ll hear how upskilling might just be the best way to tackle this dilemma. I’m joined by Jaime Fall, director of UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute. Welcome, Jaime.
Jaime Fall: Thank you, Greg. I appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
Thomas: I’m glad you’re here. Before we get in too deep, how did you come to this field?
Fall: Well, it goes way back to my junior year in high school actually. I’ll try to make a long story as short as I possibly can. I needed some money, and the only job that I knew of in the tiny little town in the middle of Kansas where I grew up . . . the radio station needed a janitor. I went, talked to them, had the good sense to put on a tie even for a janitor position.
They hired me and that was on Veteran’s Day. By Thanksgiving a lot of the staff wanted to take off and be gone. They started giving me over that three-week period more and more responsibilities: “Sit here and push this button at this time and don’t touch anything else.” By Christmastime, more people wanted to be away and after New Years, I had a full time job there at the radio station, even through high school, my last couple of years.
As I thought about going off to college after graduating from high school, they told me if I would stick around and go to the community college for a couple of years, they would pay for everything. I did two years of free college; it was great for me, a very good community college, I had a chance to mature a little bit. We’ll just leave it at that.
That was all very good for me. I was one of the original upskilling recipients where an employer saw potential in someone, was willing to invest in my education, and it was good for both of us. It helped me, I grew up, had very few resources; I couldn’t have afforded four years of college. It was good for them because they kept me around. I always showed up on time, did the things that they asked me to do, and so it was great. Now I look many, many years later, at trying to help a lot more people hopefully have opportunities like that.
Thomas: That’s a fantastic backstory for how you got to where you are and you know how to do radio, so you’re preparing-
Fall: I wouldn’t say I knew how to do it, but I’ve worked at it.
Thomas: That is wonderful. Let’s maybe start with a really simple question. When we say the word upskilling, what do we mean by that?
Fall: Well, all kinds of valid definitions for it, but we really think of any sort of education training and development that leads to preparing someone for what’s next in their career.
Thomas: Pretty simple, but probably not simple to get to. This might seem like an odd time to be talking about this as an issue. In the U.S., in August, the latest U.S. unemployment figure is 3.9 percent. The economy is humming along, so things are kinda great. Why is this important now?
Fall: Well, it depends on how you define great, actually. Great for whom? You have a lot of people who are in entry level frontline jobs who really have no opportunities for advancement. They’re also probably in danger of, at some point in the very near future, losing their jobs to automation and other things. And you also have employers that can’t find workers that they need.
With a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, lots of retail fast food places really are having a tremendous difficulty finding people with soft skills and other skills that they need and employers are having trouble keeping people, right? As the millennials come of age and are now more and more in the workforce, they show that they’re leaving about every two years from the jobs that they have.
Jobs that used to have high turnover, it’s being accelerated now. Yes, things are really good. I’m thrilled that we have a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, but still some real problem areas in the workplace.
Thomas: I like the way you put that. Good for who, right? Because I think that might be the biggest challenge that we’re facing in the economy is, how do you make sure that the tide is bringing up all the boats?
Fall: Absolutely. Somebody with skills, great education, there with an in-demand job, they’re probably doing very well right now. These are great times considering what we had 10 years ago.
Thomas: How did UpSkill America as an organization come about?
Fall: It was around 2014, maybe even late 2013 that the recovery was kicking in gear. A lot of people were feeling like things were better out. There was a really large swath of America where things weren’t better, wages weren’t going up, people were feeling trapped in their jobs or people even had lost homes during the economic collapse. There needed to be more being done for workers. There’s recognition that there were companies that were doing great things. For example, Boeing spends about a billion dollars a year-
Fall: . . . on the education training and development of their workers. This is embedded in their culture. They really get this. There are other good companies I can mention that do a great job of this, but yet there were a lot of companies that weren’t really investing much of anything in their workers, especially after the economic downturn. A lot of companies cut their training budgets and other things. It came about because of this understanding that we really needed to bring employers together, see what we could do to help this group of workers who weren’t reaping the benefits of the economic recovery.
Thomas: When you look across the economy, when you look across corporate America, what’s the state of these types of programs to add those skills and to help people move along to the next path, the next place in their career?
Fall: I guess I would break it down, Greg, in maybe three different buckets. You have a group of employers—back to the Boeing’s of the world—who invest a lot of money in this. They really get this, it’s part of the company culture, and they’re doing great things and are really committed to making sure that their workers have the skills that they need.
Then you have another set of employers who do some things, invest the money, but maybe they’re not doing a really a complete package. Let me just give you one specific example that will probably ring true with your listeners. They may be investing in education and training, or they may have a tuition reimbursement program, but they have a 2 or 3 percent take-up rate and a lot of people really can’t take advantage of those programs.
On top of that, maybe people complete a program, but the company is not even tracking who completes the program. Somebody puts in all this time and effort, they’re not even in line for a promotion.
Then a third bucket of employers that I would say is, they still see education training and development as an expense that has to be controlled, and they’re really not doing a great amount in the area at all.
Thomas: When you look at the types of programs that are out there, how do those break across different buckets? Does everybody do the same thing? Are there best practices? What are the ways in which people are putting in place programs to bring those skills?
Fall: Well, we try to define it in a bit of a continuum, if you will, and there aren’t hard lines between them. But there are companies that do things around pre-employment training, so people in their community can benefit from some basic skills, education, and training and be prepared then for probably a first job.
Then there are companies that invest in high school completion programs or equivalency programs, and then there are companies that have apprenticeship programs, companies that do incumbent worker training or skill training for their existing workers, all the way up to college degree programs where an employer is really investing and will pay for a college degree for their employees.
Thomas: If you’re an employer, how do you decide out of that broad range of possible programs, what’s best for you and for your workforce?
Fall: The starting point is always pain, right? Where’s your pain as a company? Where do you have high turnover? Where are you having difficulty filling or finding people with the skills that they need? Then really looking at what are possibly some of the solutions around that and really digging into what’s hurting your company and what’s holding you back from growth. I think that’s the place that most employers start and certainly where I would recommend at least kind of an initial review.
Thomas: You mentioned in your own background that bridge into community college you had. What’s the role, if any, of educational institutions in filling out this upskilling picture?
Fall: It’s a very important role, but it’s not a perfect role either. Let me talk about both of those. It’s really important that employers have education providers that they can partner with through contract or through tuition programs to do education and training either onsite or at the college and have those partnerships where they know that the people who complete the programs get their certificate or they graduate, are going to have the skills that really fit in. I think the most high profile example would be Starbucks and Arizona State University. That’s probably one that most listeners would be familiar with.
There are some great examples like that, that I can talk about where employers have those partnerships but they’re not perfect. That’s the second point I want to make. A lot of times colleges are really tied to a seat time model that doesn’t really work well with employers. A lot of colleges also, it takes two years to get curriculum approved.
Thomas: Seat time, meaning people need to be in the classroom?
Fall: Right. You’ve got to be in the classroom and no matter how much you already know, you’ve got to complete this course, and it’s going to take you close to the six months-
Thomas: The notion of credits.
Fall: Credit hours.
Thomas: You might need to have these credit hours.
Fall: Absolutely. Thank you, Greg.
Thomas: That’s really a model that colleges are used to, what they stick with, and that’s really not the best working model when you have an employer that thinks they need a skill, they need to deliver tomorrow, and they don’t have two years to wait for an updated curriculum.
Fall: They have a day job and maybe they have kids at home or elderly parents to take care of.
Thomas: Absolutely. That’s an area that’s a tremendous need . . . I wish more employers understood what happens when people are in the workplace and some of the barriers that their workers are up against. You gave great examples, children, a car that isn’t dependable. There all kinds of things that . . . It really is such an incredible commitment for someone to say, “No, I’m going to use my evenings or my weekends, and I’m going to go back to school.” They just need so much support, and it’s just so hard for them. I just wish more employers got that.
Fall: Probably more so for those frontline jobs. There’s a little bit less buffer there. They get a lot less buffer there in terms of, “How am I going to fix the car? How am I going to cover the emergency room visit?” Whatever it might be.
When employers want to work with an educational institution, what’s the role of each of them to maybe find or design a program that works for both sides? Have you seen that work out in practice?
Fall: Well, it takes kind of give and take on both parts, right? The employer has to be more clear than they often are about the skills that they need. A lot of times employers say, “Well, just give me someone who shows up on time.” But people will show up on time and they’ll say, “Well, no. I wasn’t looking for that. I need something else.” So-
Thomas: Is that hard for employers to get to that level of specificity around skills?
Fall: Shockingly, it really is. I think it’s fair to say that many employers think that they definitely hire on competencies, but when you talk to them about what they really need . . . Do you need a certificate, what validates to an employer the competency that they’re looking for? They aren’t really sure many times. It can get really fuzzy very quickly when you’re talking to an employer about, “What do you need to fill that position?”
Thomas: The example you gave someone who shows up on time, that’s a soft skill. That’s not a technical competence. “I know I don’t know how to run this sheet metal press, but I know how to show up on time.” They probably need that level of specificity around what they need as well.
Fall: It’s somewhat surprising to me the difficulty for employers to talk about soft skills and what it really means to them. They all say that they need teamwork, but how does that actually look in the workplace? Right? Do they need someone who is going to show up on time, so the worker before them can go home or is it in the interpersonal relationships and their communications, the way that they treat other people with respect? What are those soft skills even mean?
Thomas: On the educational front or the front of employers and educational institutions working together. You mentioned employers need to be more specific around the skills they need. What else goes into that equation?
Fall: They need to respond more quickly to what the employer needs, they need to be able to provide training and curriculum that’s a faster turnaround that needs to be updated. It’s fantastic when a college and an employer can reach an agreement where there’s actually some training developed and provided in the workplace as opposed to people having to go to the school. What can be done online, right?
Sometimes you find workers don’t even have Wifi at home, right? Is there something that can be done at the workplace? Is there some sort of a common place the Wifi can be provided? There are many things that employers and colleges just need to sit down and work through all of their needs and try to identify the best compromise and the best solution that they can come up with together.
Thomas: Is there a scale that’s required on the part of either an employer in a community or an educational institution in a community to make the investment worthwhile?
Fall: Absolutely. You hear that certainly more from the college side. An employer will say, “Well, I’m desperate for this position.” And then how many people do you want to hire? “Well, we’re going to hire four over the next two years.” It’s not productive for a college to create a program at that small of a scale. It’s always better when employers can look at things almost from what’s called a sector strategy, what other employers in the same field that are looking for the same occupation? How can they work together to create a larger program, so it’s more workable for the college?
Thomas: Maybe there’s a concentration of an industry and an area or something like that.
Thomas: We’ve talked a lot about why this is good for employees. It helps them get on to that next stage in their career. Why is this good for employers?
Fall: Well, that’s really the great thing about this. This isn’t a one side wins and the other side loses. I think part of what we feel like has helped make us successful over the last four years of this is that it’s a win-win for both.
Specifically to your question, there were a number of return on investment studies that Lumina Foundation and Accenture did with employers that really showed that by investing in education benefit programs, that it provided a positive rate of return. The other thing that was really interesting about two of those studies was that the highest rate of return, by far, by multiples, was when they invested in the front line in entry level workers. The company really didn’t receive a great rate of return when they took someone who had a bachelor’s degree, for example, and sent them back for an MBA.
But when they took somebody that worked in their call center and said they were going to invest in them, help them get a college education, then that was really a tremendous rate of return for them. That’s point one. We can actually point to evidence now. Every one of those case studies that was done, there was a positive rate of return for the employers.
Also, you have things like just the nature of millennials these days. One thing that’s consistent in every survey that you will see from millennials is that they are not going to stay with an employer unless that employer is investing in their education, and development, and network. There are opportunities for advancement. That really gets to the heart of this turnover issue in retention. That’s another thing that’s very good for employers. They can often keep the employees that they need longer by investing in some of those important programs.
Back in January, BlackRock’s CEO wrote a letter to investors that went out to companies. He said in that letter that unless they’re doing a certain number of things that BlackRock was no longer going to be interested in investing in them.
Thomas: Not having to put money in them.
Fall: One of the top things was development of their workers and being good stewards of the workers that they have. There’s really pressure coming from all sides. There’s the retention, there’s just finding qualified workers, and then what investors are looking for in return on investment.
Also, this gets to the reputation of the company, right? There are new things that are out there, not that new. But even if you think about things like Glassdoor, that someone who’s looking for where they want to apply for a job, what kind of employers do you want to work for? You can go in, and you can see, “Is this employer that am thinking about applying for? Do they even invest in their workers, or do they just use up the workers and throw them away?,” if you will.
Thomas: Lots of reasons why this makes good business sense-
Thomas: … for the employer. Where does this all go from here? When you look out, pick your timeframe, where do you think these initiatives are going or perhaps even need to go?
Fall: Well, what we really talk to employers about is more than just, “You need to create one program.” They really need to be looking at how they create a learning culture within their company. That’s where we think the real impact is going to be both immediately and three to five years out if we pick that window. Companies need to be thinking about, “How do we really create the programs that are going to help us meet the skill needs that we have to continue to refresh skills when we need to? Also, to attract the workforce that we need?” It’s from bringing people in to make sure everyone’s being tracked, to make sure managers, for example, are rewarded for developing the people underneath them. Many companies don’t do that.
It’s this holistic approach of the learning culture that I really think more and more companies hopefully are getting but certainly need to as we look again to that three to five year timeframe as change seems to be continuing to accelerate; changes in technology and in the potential for mass dislocation within the workforce.
Thomas: For employers or employees who are interested in learning more about this topic and exploring these kinds of programs, what advice would you give them? Where should they start?
Fall: Well, excuse the shameless self-promotion here, Greg, for just a moment and your listeners as well. We’ve tried to create multiple tools for employers to really help them through this process. Our website is upskillamerica.org, and we have created a playbook for employers on upskilling and it’s cleverly called “The UpSkilling Playbook for Employers.” They should take a look at that because we talk about some of these reasons employers should be thinking about investing in their workers, some of the ways that they can. We also try to point out a number of different models for how employers are doing it, some of the programs that we feel are very successful right now, and then also some of the things that they could think about to make sure that they have the program that’s best going to meet their needs as well.
Then this year what we’ve really been focused on our specific tools that will help employers with the individual steps that they need to take to be successful with this. One example I would give you is that, we’ve partnered with the Institute for Corporate Productivity to do a number of infographics, and one of them helps employers think about the way that they move from a tuition reimbursement model to a tuition disbursement model. So many companies, as we talked about earlier, they have these tuition reimbursement models with incredibly low take up rates and that’s not a model that’s going to be workable, especially for frontline and entry level workers going forward. If we help-
Thomas: They might not be able to afford it.
Fall: Oh, absolutely, right. That’s the key thing.
Thomas: The employee might not be able to afford it.
Fall: Absolutely. If you have someone making close to a minimum wage job, perhaps without benefits, they may have more than one job. Further education just isn’t an option for them. How does the employer think about making that transition to a tuition disbursement model, so the employee can avoid the out of pocket upfront costs yet the employer gains the same benefit?
Thomas: We’ve been talking about upskilling the workforce with Jaime Fall of UpSkill America. Thanks Jaime so much for coming in and talking with us on the Workday Podcast. If you want to learn more, please do visit the website at upskillamerica.org. Thanks for coming in.
Fall: Thank you, my pleasure.
Thomas: If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard here on the Workday Podcast, please subscribe and thanks again for listening.