Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lifelong Learning: A Cure for the Displaced Worker?

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate.

It’s been a familiar story over the last few decades. A manufacturing operation in Anywhere, USA shutters its facility in favor of a low cost labor country which increasingly isn’t in China. The impact upon the community – depending upon its size and economic mix – ranges from significant to catastrophic. For the local community, the loss ripples throughout the economy, undermining the financial health of suppliers, grocery stores, and retail outlets. To the dislocated worker, the impact is far more personal. If they are able to find employment again, it will likely bring a lower wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that roughly 44.0 percent of workers dislocated between 2009 and 2011 reported lower earnings at their new full time position – wage impacts can also spillover to their children’s future earnings potential. If the dislocated worker is unable to find work, the effects are grimmer.
Over a two-year period – 2009 to 2011 – 12.8 million workers were displaced from their jobs according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey released last year. Plant closure (30.8 percent), insufficient work (39.5 percent), and position or shift abolished (29.7 percent) shared nearly equal responsibility for worker dislocation in the United States. For long-tenured workers – 44.0 percent remain unemployed – finding work will be challenging as their acquired knowledge and skillsets are intricately linked to a specific position, facility, and company. Much of what they learned over their tenure will likely be discounted by other firms or easily replaced by an incoming young, malleable workforce.
While retraining programs and offerings at a local community colleges will serve to assuage a plant , they do little to address the structural issues embedded within a progressively flexible and evolving labor market. Fortunately – or unfortunately – the path towards adaptation is incumbent upon the willingness of each individual to continually seek out opportunities to improve one’s skills and acquire new knowledge.
Arguably the best – most cost effective at the very least – continual learning avenue is the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOCs offer college level – albeit usually entry-level – courses for free. Many of the nation’s top universities offer at least one MOOC: Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech, and University of Michigan are just a few of the nation’s universities exploring the new education medium. Course offerings cover a wide swathe of topics ranging from global health to quantum physics. MOOCs have low barriers to entry (re: free) and provide an avenue for local communities to establish themselves as lifelong learning regions – promoting continual learning within the workforce and developing programs that support it.
Admittedly, the courses offered by MOOCs lean heavily toward the professional services, information technology, engineering, and business management worlds where many positions already have a four-year degree requirement. Coursework in plumbing, carpentry, welding, or any traded profession is woefully underserved. To make up this gap, local stakeholders may work with community colleges to offer freely available courses that tailor to the local economic composition. Have a large manufacturing facility? Welding or product assembly might be a departure point. Have a huge medical hospital within the community? Introductory courses in radiology or nursing may be a better fit. The goal is to reduce the potential resistance for local workers to attend, reskill, or acquire new knowledge – offerings should be provided for free or at material cost.
The MOOCs model not only reduces the friction to continual learning, it rewards the exploration of new topics. You can easily take any course that piques your interest. Bioelectricity your thing? The fact that you’ve never completed a Calculus course bother you? Haven’t completed high school? Signing up for a course is just a click away. The fear of failure is all but erased as a consequence of “free.” When combined with a degree of personal responsibility and willingness to complete the course, the freedom to be an undergraduate student in the normally expensive “exploratory” phase is opened up to average folk.
Time is critical for the displaced worker. The Urban Institute finds that one’s chance of being called back for an interview declines by 45 percent as you move from one month of unemployment to eight months of unemployment. Just for an interview. Forty-five percent. Almost half. Continual learning for the displaced worker will ensure their current skills are relevant and up-to-date, thus closing the gap between themselves and the newly graduated. It also likely hastens the speed at which they may decide to shift to another profession. Displaced from the manufacturing plant? Maybe that course on network security was convincing enough to pursue a two- or four-year degree in the field.
In a continually evolving economic climate, adopting a lifelong learning approach to workforce development ensures that local workers are flexible, lessening the potential impact of any one firm closure or position elimination caused by technological change. Workforce adaptability and malleability is the key towards lessening the impact of worker dislocation.