• Three fundamental rules can be followed in order to empower a generation of lifelong learners.
  • High-trust education institutions and workplaces are being equated with high performance.
  • We need to tap into our emotions to replicate in remote environments what we miss from the office, as opposed to pining over the space itself.

The prevailing discourse on upskilling focuses too heavily on the skills side, and not enough on the learners.

Skills themselves do not result in persistence, nor do they result in lifelong learning. One McKinsey study of top executives found that only 16% felt “very prepared” to address the skills gap in their businesses.

Why? Some 42% in the US, 24% in Europe and 31% in the rest of the world admitted they lacked a “good understanding of how automation and/or digitization will affect our future skills needs.”

It’s hard to forecast what skills a business will need in five years; there are so many external variables, plus businesses have a tendency to change — sometimes dramatically. But that’s just why persistence and lifelong learning are so important.

Persistence means the learner sticks with the program until they achieve the desired outcome. Lifelong learning is what happens when that learner makes a habit out of that process.

Unlike technical skills, persistence and lifelong learning can’t just be taught. They are qualities that have to be cultivated and regularly reinforced. Yet the benefits are self-evident.

What executive wouldn’t want a workforce that was eager to learn, proficient at it, and not easily deterred from the pursuit of new skills?

Of course, since COVID-19, we are tasked with not only upskilling millions of workers for the reopening of the global economy, but doing so remotely.

And yet, we have been grappling with this issue at WorldQuant University for years because we were online-only long before the coronavirus pandemic struck. We have long known that the online learning industry has been plagued by high abandonment and drop-off rates since its inception, and have therefore found solutions along the way.

The big lesson is that we need to prioritize making lifelong learning enticing. But how, exactly, should we best go about that? Here are 3 ways:

1. Fuel academic collaboration with trust

Any upskilling effort needs to set a shared standard for how employees are going to be together and work together. This is a foundation of trust. It’s the same foundation that made the shift to remote work relatively painless for many businesses.

We already know that trust has a positive influence on outcomes in a traditional educational setting. But there’s also an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating that high-trust workplaces are high-performance workplaces.

Leaders must therefore ensure their high-trust culture is making its way into their upskilling programs. Employers must focus on creating a new type of social contract that lays the groundwork for persistence.

When we work together towards a common goal, the mere experience itself is rewarding. The relationships we form help us to persist along the journey. Indeed, shared investment isn’t limited to students.

Trust-driven cultures tend to spread. Once employers create trust in an upskilling program, it will penetrate through to the next group of learners.

Ironically, to create a sense of place, it’s best not to worry about literal “places” at all.

2. Make place a priority

In a remote setting, you need to create a proxy for the real-world experiences that students expect, a major one being the human need for proximity — foundational to any effective learning environment.

Merely replicating real-world experiences and piping them into an online learning environment is not the right place to start.

A recent Psychology of Music study demonstrated just how well the human mind can find a way to get what it needs by showing how people use music listening to fill their desire for social interaction. This highlights just how much room there is for creativity as we reimagine what it means to have a “campus” in an online environment.

Ironically, to create a sense of place, it’s best not to worry about literal “places” at all.

Communication and tone are the key. Your words set a culture for learning, mutual accountability and shared responsibility. Be it online or on a physical campus, they tap into our emotions and sense of belonging.

A place, especially in an educational context, is defined by its community’s shared values. But our brain uses places in some unexpected ways.

For example, many of our memories are linked to specific locations, and it’s incredibly difficult to let go of such a deep-rooted, emotionally charged appreciation for physical space. And yet, if you define the place with shared values, your community will help co-create the virtual places where they want to spend time together.

upskilling training university online
People believe it’s easier to change their weaknesses than their strengths.
Image: WorldQuant University

3. Leverage a diverse range of strengths

Education institutions have traditionally established a baseline of knowledge and experience that one must possess to gain entry. With upskilling, people show up with different strengths and experiences in the workplace and it’s essential to leverage the peer-to-peer setting to discover, elevate and showcase those strengths.

When you follow the traditional model, you’re asking a worker to revert to the lowest common denominator, rather than build on their greatest strengths. Worse, employers are asking the employee to make explicit that they lack a key skill that is necessary for their employment.

One recent study found that a third of workers did not ask for training “for fear of seeming incompetent.”

Despite this evidence, employers continue to frame upskilling initiatives as a response to a “skills gap” — drilling in a message that their workforce has problematic shortcomings, rather than strengths that they can build on.

A relentless focus on what’s missing, rather than the valuable skills employees possess, conditions them to do the exact opposite of what employers need them to do.

Such an approach runs counter to every best practice in the people manager’s handbook. High performing teams are never monolithic; they leverage a diversity of strengths that are deployed strategically through collaboration.

So why do we ditch that philosophy when it comes to upskilling?

The problem, when it comes to learning and growth, is an underlying human bias. Studies have proven that people believe it’s easier to change their weaknesses than their strengths. Employers who highlight and leverage employee strengths will keep their people engaged in the learning process.

When you create a space for people to utilize their strengths, the learning process is enticing and constructive. Workers won’t experience shame for their shortcomings, and they will meet colleagues who have strengths in areas in which they are weak.

WorldQuant University, which is a not-for-profit founded by Igor Tulchinsky and dedicated to advancing global education, offers a MSc in Financial Engineering that welcomes students from a vast range of backgrounds, meaning students with a computer science orientation can support students with a business and finance orientation, and vice versa. They are encouraged to do so via a strong message that every student’s strengths are needed and valuable.

Strengths-based approaches create a virtuous cycle of learning and collaboration, which ideally makes its way back into your day-to-day operations. What’s more, strength-based companies have consistently demonstrated better results in sales, profit and customer engagement.

Now is not just an apt time to close a skills gap; it’s a shared cultural moment in which we can cultivate a generation of lifelong learners. What’s more, we need to get serious about long-term solutions that build resiliency into the global economy.

The best way to close the skills gap, once and for all, will be to stop thinking of skills as commodities. Rather, the only commodity that counts in the new economy is a worker’s ability to learn — continuously.