Scrolling through records of mid-century America reveals a bright future for frontline “blue-collar” workers. For the two decades following World War Two, prospects improved and middle-class ranks swelled with median family annual income nearly doubling. It was only from the 1970s and the rise of Milton Friedman’s management thinking that things began to change as employee interests were displaced by stakeholder interest. Drucker Institute’s Rick Wartzman has already charted this narrative in End of Loyalty, signposting an opportunity to reinvigorate this legacy. Providing lifelong training to create real workplace prospects is a bubbling conversation, especially in the early wake of COVID-19.

There is industry support for retraining and reversing Friedman’s cost-based thinking, now gaining momentum even if a consensus on funding models and learning frameworks is lacking. This sea change widens opportunities for Americans - personalized learning journeys are an attainable prospect, both for those entering the workforce and others making mid-career transitions.

This comes at time when 4-year academic programs are losing appeal, graduating students with massive debt and little improvement to their employability. Instead of recommending skills in broad-strokes and multi-year credentialing, institutions are starting to use simple matching software and a smaller purse to advance worker employability via micro-credentials. Peg these to in-demand skills from industry and labor stands a chance of keeping pace with digital transformation.

Who’s involved?

A roster of companies has emerged, taking up different places in the skills ecosystem. This post identifies them and attempts to organize their function according to improving:

  • Training: efficiently connect individuals to missing training
  • Hiring: match talent with open roles using skills as the starting point
  • Retaining: increase the emphasis on learning to make loyalty worth it

These three steps primarily call for sorting, matching and rebooting of company career programmes. First, sorting.

Sort the skills

Agree on a taxonomy and use this to organize existing credentials so that each can be connected to missing skills of an individual.

  • Understanding what different skills mean at the definition level is one challenge that O*NET started to solve when the website was launched during the 1990s. Despite its dated design, O*NET’s content is rich and easily filtered.
  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) are also looking at skills legibility at the classification level - their International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) system.
  • UK-based workforce foundation Nesta have taken data-driven approach, beginning with a list of just over 10,500 unique skills that had been mentioned within the descriptions of 41 million UK job adverts, collected between 2012 and 2017. The way they visualise skills provides an impressive display.

Training courses sit on top of this layer, looking at an arrangement of skills and organising curriculum that leads to tangible increases in productivity or seniority.

  • Credential Engine have been sorting courses for the past four years, unpacking some 60,000 workplace credentials so that they can be searched by the learner.
  • The Federal Reserve of Cleveland are exploring the missing skills that prevent progression. Looking at skills across 33 cities, they identify what roles employees have 75% of the skills for, then casts each individual the 25% they need to develop to keep pace with the job market. The model is particularly prescient in rural communities.
  • Germany’s apprentice system is often regarded as the model for of vocational training. America’s 1,100 community colleges offering two-year programs also present apparatus for retraining the American workforce. A recent paper argues that COVID-19 presents an opportunity for the “indispensable institution” to be amplified. Among the 11 recommendations are notions to design community college curriculum around local hiring needs and mid-career adults.

Matching talent

Despite the general schism in U.S. politics, even the Trump administration has taken the approach that skill-based hiring is a good idea for federal government. This also reflects Ivanka Trump’s view - she is a co-chair of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. Work from WEF aligns with this granular approach, outlined in their comprehensive Strategies for the New Economy, published in January 2019.

This work would sound hopeful if it weren’t for the fact that LinkedIn are already working on putting skills-based hiring into practice. Their Skills Genome emerged at the end of 2019 to investigate how economic opportunity matched in relation to skills. Through the research, LinkedIn analysed its userbase of 630 millions members to identify the way that 35,000 skills map to real careers in different cities.

In January 2020 paper another WEF paper was published, Jobs of Tomorrow, looking into emerging role types and what vital skills are needed to carry them out. This work is being acted on by SkillsSmart who help employers better signal the requirements for the jobs to refine candidates at the point of application.

Also: Opportunity@Work

Learning as a lifelong journey

If we’re going to emerge from Friedman’s shareholder doctrine, employers will need to treat employees as assets and counter-balance a cost-based approach.

Enterprise employers have used their size to develop comprehensive internal training programmes. For all the criticism Starbucks gets, their employee training for associates is considered one of the best in hospitality. Meanwhile Walmart have invested in skills with on-site academies replacing stockrooms. The creation of an internal university program, Live Better U, enables employees to enroll in training at a subsidized rate ($1 per day).

These efforts from the supermarket echo those of management thinker Peter Drucker who stressed the importance of continuous learning. The Drucker Institute pursues this vision in the form of an experiment in South Bend, Indiana to create a “city for lifelong learning.” Their place-based approach identified the library as the gateway for learning and aims to ensure that economic uplift is attainable in smaller towns in America.

Also: Credly, Guild Education

If you have comments or suggestions on updating this inventory, email Will Ross (

Header image: Rob Lambert