In 2023, the world is reeling from continued economic uncertainty. Across all sectors and audiences, there is an emerging focus on profitability, de-risking decision-making, and navigating fast-changing needs. Of course, we must take market conditions seriously, but we must also look strategically to the future. One core tenet of strategic futures thinking is considering deeply what will change and what will stay the same—and education remains our most transformational lever for economic uplift, resilience, agility, and innovation.
It’s a lesson many of us learned growing up: give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. But if you teach someone to fish, they’ll eat for life. And they’ll be more likely to send their kids to school, support their community, and probably use that knowledge to teach and impact others.
This is why the World Economic Forum estimates that greater private-public collaboration on large-scale upskilling and reskilling initiatives could boost global GDP by $6.5 trillion and create 5.3 million new jobs by 2030. But this requires real vision, commitment, and investment from all of us to bring these gains to life.
The skills gaps that individuals, regions, and countries face are only growing as fast-changing technologies, geopolitics, and climate change accelerate the mismatch between our knowledge and new economic demands. Moreover, our cultural beliefs that put rigid start-stop boundaries on learning (K-12, college, graduate school) are deeply misaligned with the continuous, lifelong skill-building we all need to navigate the future of work, even (and perhaps especially) as senior leaders and executives.
Leaders serious about navigating our current uncertain economic environment must embrace both reactive and proactive strategies for long-term success. There are few greater levers than unlocking the power of education—but there are three things we need to embrace to ensure we reap the benefits.
Put learners, not tech, first
Today, the market of upskilling opportunities is saturated with low-quality offerings that don’t go far enough to solve the systemic problems of an underskilled workforce. Moreover, what seemed innovative two decades ago (prerecorded college lectures, quantity over quality, and PDF downloads) has quickly become stale in an era of endless free videos and information abundance.
But there is a big difference between passively watching a video and actively learning a skill, and we need learning programs that recognize that and put learners first. Learning is not easy. While incredibly rewarding, it can also challenge us in unexpected ways. Whether a three-hour workshop or a year-long program, learners need guidance to navigate those challenges, achieve learning outcomes, and apply useful new skills.
The future of upskilling must prioritize meaningful interactions with peers, small-group and 1-1 guidance from experienced educators, feedback to help learners grow, and flexible formats that enable learners to bring attention and focus amidst busy schedules. This is equally true for in-person, hybrid, and online programs because it’s not (and never has been) just about the technology. It’s about the learning experience and unlocking the power of human potential. Technology is a tool—people are the power.
Rethink the access pipeline
Traditional education has long been gated for many global learners, something I witnessed firsthand growing up in Mumbai. Why does education—one of our single greatest tools for economic empowerment and equality—have so many barriers?
Traditional models require high upfront payments, proximity to campus, massive time commitments, and selective access to admission. In professional and business education, it’s often only the most elite groups that can afford to take a sabbatical or secure financial support to pursue graduate business degrees, which then increase your salary by 75% alongside lavish bonuses and stock options.
It’s time to embrace new ways to make world-class education accessible so everyone can reap educational benefits and the accompanying economic rewards. The key to that inclusivity is reshaping education for flexibility. The more options available, the more people can participate. The pandemic removed some of these previous barriers by moving lessons online and allowing remote learners to benefit from courses, but that is just the beginning.
In particular, expanding learning formats is one of the most significant ways to lower time and financial barriers. For example, shorter 2-3 month programming can offer targeted, flexible skill development at a fraction of the cost instead of a multi-year full-time commitment.
To lower the financial burden, we should also expand financing opportunities, providing upfront tuition reimbursement to learners and, in the US, increasing the tax benefits for companies that invest in learning and development (L&D) for their employees.
Some of the world’s most innovative organizations are already leading the way: last fall, Amazon announced a $1.2 billion investment into education and skills for more than 750,000 employees. And increasingly, with more learning flexibility and enterprise offerings, we’re seeing small-to-mid-sized businesses embrace L&D programs that can close skill gaps and build unique market advantages that drive long-term economic growth.
These are moves in the right upskilling direction, and now is the time to invest in more. To see global gains, we need to empower global opportunity.
Build a dynamic roadmap of emerging skills
Here is where we come back to our unknown future: the world is changing rapidly, and we need to build education models that are responsive to new emerging skills. This includes new technologies like machine learning and VR, new cultural leadership skills to inspire resilience and innovative capacity, and new executive skills to navigate an increasingly complex global world.
Our solutions will come from dialogue and collaboration among industry peers. We need to convene stakeholders from the world’s greatest universities, leading companies, and learners themselves, all of whom bring unique expertise and strengths. This is how we shape our perspective, define solutions, and build confidence in the future.
Amidst uncertain times, it’s never been more important to seize the opportunity to invest strategically in our future, both as a workforce and society as a whole. Education is always the answer.
Ashwin Damera is CEO and co-founder, Emeritus, an edtech company built on the belief that education is transformational. Ashwin, who graduated from Harvard Business School, felt the deep impact of education both personally and professionally; it provided him with intellectual capital, brand capital and social capital. But he knew that many individuals don’t have the access or resources to get there. That’s why he founded Emeritus: to bring high-quality education to individuals around the world and make it more accessible and affordable. He set out to create Emeritus as a platform to provide online courses, and in the process helped define the market for Small Private Online Courses. Today, with 80+ international university partners across 27 countries and a business that supports lifelong learning from K-12 to Senior Executives, Ashwin is truly working to break barriers.