ACT Foundation Legacy Part 3: What We’ve Learned

Posted: November 3rd, 2016


Formed to push the envelope of possibilities in learning and career success, ACT Foundation has helped spark new momentum in education and talent development. Through research, direct engagement with young working learners and employers, partnerships with aligned organizations, and strategic investments, we’ve discovered and shared new approaches to preparing people for education, work, and life success.

People learn effectively in lots of different ways.

Since the ancient universities were established, society has been moving toward a systematized educational structure where every learner sits in a classroom and follows the instruction of a teacher. Though other forms of learning have always existed, from apprenticeships to simple interaction with skilled associates, most public policy and social efforts have grown to be based on traditional daytime classroom learning. Leaps in technology and market demands, however, have disrupted that system, and more and more people are developing skills through non-traditional sources, from the internet to continuing education courses. Through research, the Foundation has learned that working learners embrace their workplace as a crucial source of competency growth. Proficiencies gained through both formal and informal pathways deserve to be valued and acknowledged. Economies that can clearly identify competence, no matter how it was obtained, will be best positioned to leverage the full talents of its workforce and lead the world in growth and prosperity.

Paths to career success are diverging.

For most of the period since the U.S. emerged from an agrarian economy, the prevailing concept of career success has been predicated on working for an employer through which financial stability, self-worth, personal health, and long-term welfare are dependent. This dependency has been actualized in the forms of paychecks, promotions, health insurance, and retirement plans. A convergence of forces are challenging that norm, however. Policies like Obamacare have unshackled workers from life-or-death health ties to their employers as most Americans now have employer-free access to health insurance as a matter of normality. Technology has enabled professional independence in unprecedented ways, such as the exchanges that form the virtual marketplace powering health insurance purchases; opportunities to market professional services and engage clients directly online, often regardless of where those clients may be located on the planet; and access to digital information and tutelage that allow workers to learn outside of any formal educational structure. Millennials, who often don’t embody the same corporate career urgency as previous generations, are more likely to eschew profitable but unrewarding careers for a series of jobs— full-time, part-time, or temporarily contracted—which allow them to indulge their workstyle preferences, align professional pursuits with natural interests, and achieve work-life balance. Likewise, companies are eliminating positions unrelated to core operations and opting instead to outsource tangential functions, creating a workforce of unattached professionals who have been pushed, willingly or out of necessity, to become entrepreneurs and freelancers. The ability of members of this group to independently and continuously update skill sets and deliver world-class services which meet the needs of both small and global clients will be essential to career success.

Technology can bridge gaps—to a degree.

A key outcome of our work has been the development of SEEK, an internet based tool that matches the skills and career interests of workers with both the needs of employers and the offerings by learning providers. The tool provides a novel solution for everyone involved in the career cycle. Created in partnership with Innovate + Educate, it can help workers chart working-and-learning pathways by leveraging the skills they have to identify matches with current job opportunities, while also pinpointing the proficiencies needed to move into other fields of interest.  At the same time, the tool helps employers see both the current and emerging abilities of potential employees, and helps learning providers understand the types of services they must provide to remain relevant in today’s economy. The tool also aids researchers, helping to highlight trends and providing real-time data about movement in the talent pipeline.

Technology is also a key source for both formal and informal learning opportunities—through online classes, webinars, Youtube videos, free online instruction, openly accessible content, and expedient identification of learning options. The Foundation has learned, however, that technological progress brings with it significant warnings. In the years to come, those who have access to technology—and know how to use it—will experience unprecedented advantages over those who don’t. Already, the persistent digital divide is exacerbating education attainment gaps between those who have the means to use online content to accelerate understanding and those who are lagging behind. Similarly, as employment processes are increasingly, or solely, internet-based, those who do not have ready access to technology are placed at a disadvantage. These realities will only grow in impact if they are not immediately addressed.

Competency transparency is necessary to ensure equity.

Beginning with the National Network of Business and Industry Associations’ development of a Common Employability Skills vocabulary that articulates the “the skills all employees need, no matter where they  work,” the Foundation has learned that people need clarity regarding what they need to know in order to be successful. Working with partners in business and industry, the Foundation identified a need—benefitting both employers and employees—for greater clarity in communicating the knowledge and skills a worker needs to be successful in a given job. This gives employers greater clarity and helps them focus on the actual proficiencies needed to maximize productivity, forgoing the trappings associated with irrelevant credentials and biased personal relationships. Employees, especially working learners, need to use their learning time efficiently to zero in on the skills they need to succeed and need a fair platform upon which to highlight their abilities. With this in mind, ACT Foundation developed the National Retail Services Initiative (NRSI), which led to the creation of the NRSI Competency Model and other tools.  For the first time, broad consensus was gathered to define and specify the skills needed to succeed at distinct levels on the retail career ladder, from entry-level to leader roles. Presented at the I AM RETAIL Summit, the Competency Model was informed by experts in learning and talent development, public and private workforce research, and insight from a cross-section of companies and association operating in the retail, grocery, restaurant, foods, hospitality, lodging, logistics, information technology, transportation, and distribution industries. Likewise, SEEK helps make matching applicant skills with employee needs more timely and transparent.

Working learners need special support.

To be sure, traditional educational structures work well for many people. However, a growing near-majority of learners actually work while learning, and need those structures to be flexible. Working learners are often navigating scheduling challenges, family responsibilities, time constraints, and simple human physical and mental limitations, so it is important that both schools and employers understand and accommodate the unique needs of this growing segment of the population. For young people in underserved communities, working while learning may be more of a necessity than a choice, and education can only be optimized by embracing the unique values and capabilities these workers bring to the learning environment. Likewise, the knowledge and skills working learners are developing through the learning process can lead to greater productivity, higher levels of service, enhanced efficiency, and elevated profitability for their employers. It win-win for employers to embrace working learners, and make efforts to recruit, retain, and promote them.

A revolution in learning practices is dawning.

From the start, ACT Foundation has been focused on the future. Working with partners like Institute for the Future (IFTF), the Foundation has taken a deep dive into forecasting that future, and exploring what education will look like in the coming years. In partnership with IFTF, the Learning Is Earning 2026 game was developed to ask the question, “What will working and learning look like in 2026?” The experience examined how emerging technologies like blockchain might impact learning systems by making learning and credentialing more personalized and decentralized. Hundreds of people participated in Learning is Earning 2026, particularly in gameplay sessions during SXSWedu, the SkillsUSA conference, EduTech, and the Aspen Institute. Key predictions for the future have emerged in several thematic areas: education and credentialing systems will be less centralized; they will be melded with technology; and learning will largely occur largely outside of the formal classroom.

What you need to know now may be irrelevant soon.

By focusing on the skills and talents employees need now, ACT Foundation was also able to uncover something just as interesting: the skills successful workers will need in the future. Driven by technological leaps that are already beginning to play out, the future skills workers will need relate to the expectation that they will be able function largely independently to create intellectual and personal connections while also processing lots of different kinds of information. These workers will be expected to be unafraid to tackle challenges using a deep understanding of technology, even if it requires rethinking entire business structures or societal systems. Helping focus learners on these skills now can help close equity gaps in the future.

Change is possible when you work together.

As ACT Foundation’s work moves to the new ACT Center for Equity in Learning, we are proud of the legacy the Foundation has created and the new emerging national mindset in learning and talent development, working with scores of partners, supporters, and stakeholders. Most importantly, the Foundation has worked to empower people to take ownership of their own journeys.

Read more about ACT Foundation’s work and findings in The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner: An Anthology of Recent Evidence here.

Please read:

Launching the ACT Foundation Legacy: Part 1

ACT Foundation Legacy Part 2: Assembling the Pieces