My Lifelong Learning Journey -- Why It's Not a One-Size "Fits Most" | Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

This is a 3-part series. Read The Lighting of the Fire (Part 1) first for the full story.

The first time I heard the term, “gig economy” was at a tech conference in 2017. The Bureau of Labor Statistics had reported that 55 million people in the U.S. were “gig workers” which accounted for approximately 34 percent of the U.S. workforce, and was projected to increase to 43 percent by 2020.1 Well, 2020 is here and that number doesn’t seem to be as unreal as it did just 3 years ago.

In fact, according to Gig Economy Data Hub – A partnership between ILR School and the Aspen Institute – One in 10 workers rely on independent work as a primary source of income while more than one in four is engaged in some capacity.2

This begs the question: How are people finding the right knowledge, training and education to perform the duties of their work?

Adult learners no longer see the limited options available to previous generations. True, there are still adult learning styles and preferences. However, the expectation of traditional degree programs being the primary source for preparatory education are being replaced by a wider menu of options to meet the needs of workers in a world that caters to the personalization of everything. To state it simply, people are finding the fastest way to get the information they need to start making more money.

This shift is due, in part, to the speed in which technology requires adaptation. The skills needed to meet business objectives today are a morphed reflection of what they were just 5 years ago. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and other efficient technologies have even made some jobs redundant, forcing entire professions to re-evaluate how they will evolve to deliver value in an automated world.

This has been alarming to several HR colleagues of mine. As we discuss and debate the pros and cons to a “smarter” world, I’m often advocating for the obvious-to-me pro related to the opportunity to deliver one of the major points of employee engagement: Learning. Humans are self-aware creatures who need learning to grow. We find new information stimulating which, in turn, captures our attention and feeds a sense of satisfaction and purpose when we’re able to apply new knowledge for ourselves.

We know employee engagement affects key business outcomes3 which creates a compelling argument on why it should be a prioritized strategy for HR professionals to invest in a productive talent strategy for today, tomorrow and beyond. It’s also worth noting, the term “employee” is broader than its legal definition. Companies have more options to get work done. Today, they can choose to buy, borrow or rent the talent they need to execute their work. This creates new challenges for HR to develop effective, scalable training and learning programs to meet the needs of everyone responsible for delivering satisfactory (or better) work outputs.

As keenly identified by Qualtrics4, there are clear trends emerging in the employee development space such as:

  • Social Learning
  • Hyper-individualization
  • Career Lattice vs. Career Ladder
  • Specialization vs. Generalism

They go on to propose methods of application to achieve greater success with learning programs such as:

  • Integration vs. bolt-on
  • Learning doesn’t feel linear
  • Mastery vs. achievement
  • Hard and soft [life] skills

This information is relevant, but may also feel overwhelming. Just when we think we’re finally catching up, the rules of the game seem to change and it’s time for us to yet again change our play in order to keep a competitive edge.

Let’s narrow the scope a moment and focus primarily on a fictitious case study with an HR Manager named Mandy. Mandy entered the workforce in her early 20’s, starting as a receptionist with a tech start-up. As one of the first employees, she quickly became the one everyone came to for whatever they needed.

Mandy was working her way through college, pursuing a marketing degree to complement her creative interests and eye for design. To earn some extra cash, she offered photography for weddings and family portraits as well as graphic design services.

Her company was starting to experience significant growth and her CEO approached her with an opportunity to take on the role of HR Manager. The promotion came with a small pay increase and would give Mandy exposure to learning more about employer branding, since the CEO wanted a key element of her job to be helping promote the culture they were so proud of, attracting the right talent to help them meet their lofty growth goals.

However, the new position also meant she would be working more hours in the office and wouldn’t have the same flexibility she’d had as the receptionist, She would have to cut back on her photography and graphic design work in order to maintain her school schedule which, even with the pay increase for the new position, would result in a loss of $2,000 per month. Mandy expressed her concerns to her CEO who told her she’d be getting the experience simultaneous to her degree which would give her an advantage once she graduated, easily capable of qualifying for jobs at a higher pay band than the degree alone.

Mandy agonized over all the pros and cons of the choices in front of her. On one hand, she would be getting more corporate experience which she felt she would need in a marketing role – Especially since she had her eye on a specific company where she knew she wanted to work. But on the other hand, she’d be sacrificing time she spent on her passions and talents with the photography and graphic design work she’d been doing, which she thought may leave her feeling less fulfilled and may fall behind with some of the fast-changing trends.

If Mandy were your spouse, daughter, colleague, friend – What would you advise to help her work through this decision? If I were her confidante, I would help her finds ways to create a clear, written path for herself that maximized her benefit while aligning with the core needs of her company. For example, if she didn’t already have one, I would advise to create a visual map of her aspirations, including lattice opportunities that might not be a progressive step in title, but would give her the blended experience she needed to mold a career that was personally fulfilling and took full advantage of her talents. That may include getting some on-the-job experience with employer branding which may prepare her for her next position as a social media manager. From there, she may decide she’s ready to work for a marketing agency to learn more about project management, leading complex brand and marketing campaigns for multiple companies and teaching her important lessons in client service and time management. From there, perhaps she could freelance as an independent creative for a few years, building a personal portfolio and enjoying flexibility with her schedule as she chose to start a family and have her first child. That could lead to developing a training course to help novice photographers who are learning the basics of design elements and taking beautiful photos, tapping into a new skillset of teaching.

And on and on. None of these roles would be considered a traditional “ladder” career path from intern to VP, yet the opportunities for Mandy to grow personally and professionally can be seen in each one. The learning methods she will use will vary just as much, sometimes calling on her knowledge from her 4 year degree, other times from on-demand trainings she seeks herself and even relying on some of that good old fashioned intuition. Maybe she will benefit from pursuing a certification or certificate program, lending credibility to her commitment as a knowledgeable, dedicated marketing professional. Or, perhaps she will fall in love with HR after getting her experience and change her career map entirely!

The point is, learning takes on many forms. One size does not fit all, nor should we take this approach with our employees, or ourselves.

Elisa's Lifelong Learning Journey concludes next week. Find your unique learning fit with one of SHRM Education's learning opportunities. 





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