Learning technologies could reduce automation’s economic threat

Global employment markets are in serious flux. Old-line manufacturing jobs and others are being automated out of existence by new technology, including robots and artificial intelligence.

By some accounts, only 20% of today’s workforce have the skills they’ll need for 60% of the jobs that will exist in the next five to 10 years.

But while technology is helping to fuel this massive skills gap, it may also—improbably—be part of the solution.

Many companies are harnessing new types of sophisticated software, big data, mobile applications and even artificial intelligence to re-train workers so they stay relevant, and employed, into the coming decades.

Call it Workforce Training 2.0—or, in industry lingo, a new twist on corporate “learning and development.” It’s a growing market that could be worth as much as $171 billion, by our measure, and it’s all about using new, more high-tech methods to deliver training and education to segments of the workforce, both blue- and white-collar.

This might take the form of a quick video on a mobile phone (dubbed “micro-learning”), instead of a boring lecture in a company conference room, or an online app to get instant feedback on a sales pitch. Or, it could be a quicker, easier way for a worker to learn more-modern coding skills to change careers.

Younger workers today expect to receive training and professional development via new mobile and video technologies, since they use that technology in their personal lives. (Think watching YouTube videos, or using Facebook or Twitter.) And many need to take care of training quickly, without taking too much time away from their current jobs.

Overall, corporate education-tech spending posted double-digit growth between 2011 and 2014, according to a 2016 study by research outfit Bersin by Deloitte, and should grow as companies continue to re-train and up-level the skills of existing workers.

A broader social impact

AT&T, for example—which previously employed a workforce focused on maintaining physical phone networks—is engaged in a huge, companywide re-training effort called Workforce 2020 aimed at teaching new skills around cloud computing, data and other Web-related functions.

AT&T is turning to online courses and certifications, including some through partnerships with Udacity and Georgia Tech, to do this. But the company would be a prime candidate for even-more sophisticated, digital-learning tools.

An entire job sector that’s at risk of being eliminated by AI—and with workers who are ripe for modern, high-tech re-training–is trucking. Late last year, a report from the White House predicted that almost 3.1 million drivers on the roads today, mostly truckers, could eventually lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles.

The report said 80% to 100% of “heavy trucking” jobs could be eliminated, while delivery drivers and people working as drivers for ride-sharing companies like Uber are threatened as well. The map below, from NPR, shows the most common job in every state, as of 2015—and in 29 of the 50 states, it’s truck driver:

Yet another C-Suite acronym: The CLO

Driving the growth in many of these new technologies—and the startups commercializing them–is a new C-level job in corporate America: the “chief learning officer”, or CLO.

CLOs, who oversee online corporate education, now have their own online magazine, and consulting firm Deloitte even convened a CLO Forum for these executives this past March. CLOs at companies ranging from Nike to Rich Products, a Buffalo, NY family-owned food company, can command big budgets.

A 2017 LinkedIn survey of 500 corporate-education leaders found that 27% of CLOs expect to have more budget to spend on education-tech in 2017 versus last year. (Only 13% of those surveyed expect learning budgets to shrink.)

We think the total market for corporate learning-and-development in the U.S. is now around $171 billion, with over $70 billion available for education-tech spending and about $100 billion for staff salaries.

Spending by CLOs, and HR departments generally, is helping fuel a new generation of “ed-tech” startups, some focused on re-training and some that simply offer better ways to deliver traditional professional development.

Coursera and Udacity, online education companies which initially focused on consumers, have rolled out enterprise offerings for companies. Meanwhile, coding bootcamps like Trilogy Education Services, which partners with top universities to help adults get jobs in computer science, are funneling thousands of workers through intense, six-month programs. Employees who are looking to improve softer job skills can leverage startups like BetterUp or Everwise, which offer online coaching programs to address specific skill gaps.

Other start-ups are focused on improving productivity for existing workers. EdCast, for example, bills itself as the “Netflix of Knowledge” and helps deliver what it calls “micro-learning”—short, narrowly focused videos or interactive pieces that deliver key information to those who need it most. Other companies like MindTickle, Lessonly, Skilljar, Guru Training and Rehearsal VRP offer creative new ways to bring on-the-fly training to sales teams.

Micro-learning startups Degreed and Pathgather track worker training and education on third-party sites like YouTube. If a worker watches a YouTube video or downloads a whitepaper relevant to her skillset, these companies digitally track that, so the worker earns training credits while disseminating content to others in the organization who could use it.

Programs and technologies that keep employees’ skills current–and demonstrate that their employer has an interest in their long-term career development—seem less like frills and more like prudent long-term investments today, in light of the major technological shifts upending the global workforce. We fully expect these trends to drive more financing for relevant learning-technology startups in future.