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A guide to staying competitive in the workforce

Graduates throw up their caps.
AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach
In the modern workforce, learning has become everyone’s job.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

In the modern workforce, learning has become everyone’s job. Workers are increasingly expected to spend time mastering how to use technology to do their jobs better.

At the same time, technological skills must be updated faster than before. Automation and AI are poised to transform or eliminate as many as 375 million jobs worldwide.

Technology training holds enormous promise for helping people navigate the tectonic forces reshaping the world of work. But for many, the idea of going back to school in the current context can be overwhelming. We’ve assembled some of the best resources to help.

Why is learning new skills so important?

Picking up new technical skills, like coding and design, has the potential to help millions of people escape the low-wage trap. No less than 44% of all US workers aged 18-64 without a college education find themselves earning just $17,950 per year with little chance of social mobility.

The Brookings Institution’s seminal report on the 53 million making up America’s low-wage workforce also illustrates a larger plight across the industrialized world as low-skill jobs disappear and wages decline. MIT economist David Autor describes just how we got here, starting with wage stagnation in the 1970s.

“One of the enduring paradoxes that has accompanied the rise of wage inequality over the last four decades in industrialized economies is the sustained fall in real wages experienced by less-educated workers,” he writes. One economic force stands out from the others: “the intersection of technological progress and worker productivity [known as] occupational change.”

Retraining is not just critical for low-wage workers. Everyone will need to prepare. The Pew Foundation’s 2017 report on the future of work offers a diverse perspectives on what lies ahead.  You’ll get plenty of insight—and some uncertainty as well. The World Economic Forum’s series on the Future of Jobs is another. LinkedIn Learning’s annual reports dive into the skills and strategies employers are using to develop and attract talent.

Educational researchers are honest about the limits of our current efforts to educate workers for the demands of the futureJohn Pane, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank, says we’re just starting to figure out how to use technology to improve learning. His 2018 white paper on the topic offers a glimpse at how we might make teach future generations more effectively. MIT’s Poverty Lab has a wealth of rigorous research on how education can be improved.

The promise is that technology will democratize learning. That was the hope raised in a 1984 paper called “The Two Sigma Problem,” published in the journal Education Research. Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom reported turning average students into superior ones through intensive personalized instruction and mastery learning. While suitable for almost anyone, he wrote, these two techniques are “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.”

It’s possible that online tools, artificial intelligence, and virtual classrooms will make personalized learning possible and affordable for the first time. We’re not there yet, but new models of education like bootcamps—short intensive training programs in advanced skills —on and off-campus are promising experiments.

I’m convinced. Where should I go to school?

There’s not yet a lot of transparency in education. It’s easier to get an accurate rating of your local burger joint than credible and transparent data about how students fare after attending different universities. To fix that, a number of organizations are delivering the data by looking at students’ career trajectories after graduation. But read the fine print. Bootcamps that claim 90% or higher placement rates may be fudging numbers by only considering how many “active job seekers” are hired rather than how many are enrolled.

Here’s a review of data sources to help.

US Census’ Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes: Public universities in the US have not had to report on their students’ incomes. That’s changing.  This brand new data set represents the first time that the public has access to comprehensive student outcome data. The most granular data only covers Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, but it’s an early look at what will likely become one way to see what students’ tuition dollars are worth.

Course Report: A directory of US coding bootcamps (some of which can be attended remotely) and reviews, Course Report is one of the most comprehensive resources for sorting and choosing a bootcamp.

CareerKarma, a student recruiting agency, puts out regular reports assessing the bootcamp market (2020) as well as the income share agreement market (2019). Since they work with bootcamps, they are not the most impartial sources, but the group collects some of the most detailed data available.

Bootcamp outcome reports: Bootcamps increasingly produce annual (or periodic) reports assessing how their students fare after graduation. Since these “outcome” reports are not standardized, assessing them is tricky. Almost all promise placement rates of 90% or more. Analysts warn those numbers can be misleading: many schools only count active “job-seekers” for as long as 180 days rather than total enrollees. But they are often the best place to start evaluating schools, especially those audited by third parties. Here are a few:

How do I pay for it?

If you don’t want to (or can’t) take out a loan, income share agreements (ISAs) may make sense. These contracts allow students to pay for their tuition out of their future salary. Don’t land a job above the income threshold? You don’t owe anything. Whether they make more sense than debt, or cash, is a different question. Here are some resources to start:

The ISA market and contract terms are evolving fast. It pays to read the fine print and compare all your options.