THE BLOG
08/28/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

Workforce Training: Not a "One and Done" Proposition

In the 1980s, the fax machine revolutionized the world of work. People no longer had to wait days for important documents to come in the mail or pay exorbitant overnight fees. The technology was easy to use and required little training, yet radically improved productivity. Then along came scanning technology, which served the same purpose and blew away the fax and its thermal paper. Today, we have cloud services and shared documents to facilitate our business needs.

Much as we chuckle at how outdated the fax machine seems now, I believe we will also chuckle at the way we qualify and develop vast sectors of the workforce. This is the human condition; no sooner have we learned how to use a new gadget than the next, better gadget comes out. New gadgets require training. And this cycle is accelerating. Right now, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. By 2020, it will double every 72 days.

All this, of course, has profound implications for workplace skills. In a world in which 50 percent of the skills people use to do their jobs change every three years, how can employees hope to stay relevant? This is a thorny enough question for the workforce; what about for the unemployed? Businesses have historically struggled with the financial burden of providing adequate training for their employees, resulting in lost opportunities and lost revenue. Small businesses have decided in large part that they are not in the training game -- and I believe that is hurting them. A Canadian study found that businesses with fewer than 100 employees are 28 percent less productive than businesses with more than 100 employees. Other research by Deloitte shows that companies that don't train their workers face a higher turnover rate as well. A survey of employees showed that 48 percent who plan to leave their current jobs believe their companies are doing poorly in providing effective training programs.

Given the necessity of keeping pace with ever-changing skills requirements and the benefits of training to both businesses and their employees, companies need to find a diversified approach to workforce learning that leverages technology in such a way that businesses can scale their training initiatives. Scalability is an essential factor because small businesses, low-wage workers and millions of job seekers do not have the same access to on-demand, online, lifelong skill development as their colleagues in large firms. It is estimated that by 2019, 50 percent of all courses completed will be taken online. This online learning option provides a real opportunity for small businesses (and their current and future employees) to maintain relevance, employability and productivity.

The global corporate e-learning market reached $91 billion in 2013. It's a big business, and it's mainly geared toward other big businesses. Unfortunately, the marketplace has not provided incentive for the e-learning industry to address the needs of the groups that traditionally have not had the financial means to participate. This has created a "digital learning divide" between large and small firms and the employees of each. Post-secondary training programs and government workforce development solutions, while an important stopgap, just cannot keep pace with demand.

What can be done to close this divide? It's a complex issue that requires close examination. I hope to use this blog to discuss the systems, technology and barriers in play, as well as success stories and the partnerships that help make them happen. Workforce training must not be regarded as a "one and done" methodology; relevance is now fleeting. To remain competitive as an economy and provide meaningful support to vast swaths of the economy is hard work -- but failure is not an option.