Upskilling Programs that Tackle One Skill are 'Naive,' Experts Warn

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Panelists at a Brookings event emphasized that jobs typically require a bundle of skills, not just one.

Jobs typically require many skills for workers to be successful, so training and education for upskilling initiatives needs to focus on the “bundle of skills” necessary for particular jobs, according to panelists at a Brookings Center on Regulation and Markets event Thursday. 

Morgan Frank, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, stated that it is important to gain better insight into the specific skills and abilities that workers are leveraging and how jobs often require bundles of skills, in order to understand ways for workers to have career mobility. 

In terms of skills development, Frank noted that upskilling and reskilling training programs are often “naive.” For example, a growing area like  computer programming might solely focus on teaching people Python or another computer programming language. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. 

“What our work shows is that this strategy probably won’t work,” he said. “Because it’s not just computer programming you need, it’s actually a bundle of skills that together create the skill set required to be an effective computer programmer. So, you really need to get beyond linking single occupations to one or two skills and understanding them holistically as a bundle of skill and task requirements so that we can effectively start upskilling people with bundles of skills and tasks that makes them effective.”

Frank noted that it is also important to improve data insight into necessary skills as well as how workers are trying to gain those skills as job requirements change, particularly because of technology.

Data illuminates the skills needed across different parts of the labor market and how workers are gaining these skills. It can also allow for a better understanding of where skills shortages are and ways to address them. The panelists noted that at a time when there is a labor shortage, AI and automation can help meet an increasing demand for items and services. 

“It kind of requires some more nuanced data that tells us more insights into how skills map to the capabilities of technology, and also more information about how those skills and abilities … are sort of spread out differently across different labor markets across different occupations,” Frank said.

Gad Levanon, chief economist at Burning Glass Institute, said that resilience is an important skill for workers to cultivate.

“Most of what’s going on is that technology is changing the demand for really specific capabilities and skills, and what it means to have a certain job title adapts accordingly,” Frank said, illustrating “a scenario where the individual worker has to work very hard to keep up with whatever the current in demand skills are. So it’s constantly reskilling and constantly being aware of what the frontier acknowledges.” 

“People really make smooth, gradual transitions in their skill sets over the course of their career,” Frank said.  

For instance, with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting increase in remote work, workers may be using platforms like Slack and Zoom that they may not have been using before.

“This sudden shift…requires a bundle of skills that you weren’t prepared for,” Frank said. “Our research is showing that again, this idea that it’s just one or two skills to get you through these transitions, it’s not enough. I think we need to do more to understand how skills get bundled together, and then how to deliver these bundles of skills to workers through retraining and upskilling.”

However, the panelists added that more data is also needed to gain better insight into workforce development.