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Why we need to make lifelong learning a national imperative

Senator Mark R. Warner and former secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker believe that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to prepare its workers for the future.

Why we need to make lifelong learning a national imperative
[Photo: Charles DeLoye/Unsplash]

The work landscape our children are entering today looks nothing like what our parents experienced. The notion of working for the same firm for your whole career is a distant memory, and anyone whose career trajectory looks that way is considered an outlier. Today, workers are expected to hold many different jobs throughout their careers, and technology will change what it takes to succeed in each role.

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It’s a simple, yet daunting reality: To be a productive lifelong worker in today’s economy, you have to be a lifelong learner. Unfortunately, the country is not yet set up to deliver on this new imperative, and we’re not catching up as fast as we need to be.

We’re not training our workers to have skills that companies demand

Gone are the days when you can learn one skill that sets you up for life. Today, new technology is regularly introduced in every industry and workers have to learn how to use it in order to do their day-to-day jobs. This means that an increasing portion of the workforce will need technology and digital skills–ranging from basic digital literacy to advanced computer science. As technology changes, they will have to adapt–which requires them to update their knowledge and learn new skills. In many cases, workers will probably have to do this multiple times over a lifetime in the workforce.

You don’t need to look far to see these digital skills in demand. For starters, American manufacturers are posting more jobs for coders and software developers than for production workers. Auto mechanics spend more time with computers than they do with wrenches. As technology progresses, we’re going to see different job requirements for both white collar and blue collar professions alike.

Unfortunately, the United States is not adapting quickly enough. This isn’t good news. As individuals who have served in both the public sector and private sector, we know that as a country, we can only move forward if we build a globally competitive workforce. Having a skilled workforce not only enhances the productivity of individual companies, but also the productivity, economic security (and ultimately), the national security of the United States.

As workers change jobs with increasing frequency, employers have less incentive to invest in training their workers. And because our tax code and accounting systems treat employee training as a short-term expense, rather than a long-term investment, companies have little motivation to change this reality.

For our workforce to remain competitive, we need to reverse this trend so that employers view worker investment as important as investment in R&D projects.

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To help move us in this direction, we’ve proposed solutions to tackle both sides of the employer-employee equation, encouraging businesses and individuals alike to prepare for a lifetime of success in an evolving economy.

Solution one: Create a tax credit that incentivizes employers to invest in skills training

To incentivize businesses to make long-term investments in their employees, one potential solution that has been introduced in the Senate is the creation of a new tax credit. This is modeled on the popular R&D tax credit and rewards employers who commit further resources to training low- and moderate-income workers. Not only will employers be more likely to make much-needed investments in training and education, but it would also begin to reverse the trend of a 21st-century economy that is leaving too many of our most vulnerable workers behind. Unfortunately, based on the data available, employers have been investing less in worker training: From 1996 to 2008, the percentage of workers receiving employer-sponsored training fell 42% and on-the-job training fell 36%. When they do invest, it tends to benefit their highest-paying, highly educated workforce, and leave behind many low- and middle-wage workers.

As businesses compete in a global market, companies will need workers who can quickly adapt to changes in the market. Research shows that companies that invest in worker training increase their bottom line over time.

Solution two: Introduce portable benefits that invest in lifelong learning

While some employers may recognize the importance of helping workers update their skills, there will still be many workers who have to shoulder this responsibility themselves. Without an employer to contribute, workers will need assistance accessing these opportunities–regardless of where they work. For workers to get a fair shot, access to training should be universal and not limited to those fortunate enough to work for a company that invests in lifelong learning for its employees.

One way to do this is to create Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts (LLTAs). LLTAs are employee-owned, employer- and government-matched savings plans, which are portable from job to job. Workers could use their accounts at any time during their careers to help pay for the education and training necessary to modernize their skills. These accounts can help workers better manage their economic future by incentivizing workers, businesses, and government to co-invest in the development of worker skills during their careers.

At the end of the day, lifelong learning is pivotal to the economic competitiveness of the United States. As automation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies continue to disrupt and transform nearly every sector of our economy, these kinds of investments in our workforce will only become more essential.

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The American dream might feel like it’s fading for some, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By making lifelong learning a national imperative, we can give every American, not just the wealthy, the opportunity to up-skill and reinvent themselves as technology creates new jobs or upends existing ones. Companies will also have access to more skilled labor–which means they’ll be in a stronger position to continue to be the global leaders in their fields. Everyone will benefit and we will create greater and more inclusive prosperity in the process. That’s why we need to make lifelong learning a priority for our country.


Mark R. Warner is the senior United States Senator from Virginia and Honorary Co-Chair of the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative. Penny Pritzker served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 2013 to 2017. She is the founder and chairman of the investment firm PSP Partners. She also serves as the National Advisory Council Co-Chair for the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative.

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