Disruption is coming. Is L&D ready for the 2020s?

Whatever changes are in store for tomorrow’s workers, experts agree that employers can act now by implementing new learning tech, embracing lifelong learning and perhaps one-upping one another to provide the best experience.
Adeline Kon/HR Dive

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. Below are the other articles in the series.

This story is part of an HR Dive series on what leading employers, analysts, consultants and other experts predict HR teams will face in the 2020s. To see the other articles in the series, click here.

Tomorrow’s workers are facing inevitable technological disruption — less a forecast and more a storm bearing down on their future.

Preparations are being made at institutions like the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where students are learning how to navigate the presence of robot co-workers, or “cobots,” and how to deal with a mechanized or automated environment, Jason Wingard, the school’s dean, told HR Dive in an email. Columbia students learn both the basic “hard skills” behind the tech and management strategies to navigate this new world.

“We are focusing on teaching uniquely human skills that can’t be plugged into a computer — creativity, flexibility, the ability to think on the spot and come up with a viable solution,” Wingard said. “I think that as we continue to see AI and robotics incorporated into daily professional life, companies will begin taking this approach if they have not already.”

That’s one vision for the future of employee training and development, a subject as broad and varied as the names used to identify it. But whether employers are budgeting for old-school talent development, L&D or new-age career journeys with hints of “upskilling” and “reskilling,” the next decade’s opportunities and obstacles are similar for all.

Some of the challenges are too big for one employer to solve. A 2019 World Economic Forum report that made the rounds in L&D circles predicted not only that 1.4 million U.S. workers could be displaced from their current jobs by the end of the 2020s, but also that employers alone would not be able to provide all the training required to keep all of these workers in the workforce.

Still, employers can improve prospects for workers facing precarity. Opportunity is a key piece of the strategic puzzle, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group report. Yet even when employees receive training opportunities, that doesn’t always mean employers will provide them chances to apply what they’ve learned.

Wingard and others who spoke with HR Dive believe reality is setting in for most employers. The new decade is certain to bring change, and this will require a change of mindset around talent development for both worker and employer.

Employers look to invest in advanced workplace tech by 2022
% of U.S. companies planning to adopt technologies by 2022
Nami Sumida/HR Dive; data from World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Report 2018

Learning in the 2020s

The 2010s saw rapid expansion of online learning applications, perhaps beyond that predicted at the decade’s start, Frank Britt, CEO of online learning provider and for-profit school Penn Foster, told HR Dive in an interview. Many observers were skeptical that the model would ever take off for educators, much less employers. “I don’t think they realized just how fully integrated it would be,” Britt said. “Those who were cynics were wrong.”

But moving learning online is old news. There are so many use cases provided by vendors that “we’ve hit saturation in terms of what types of learning are best suited for that type of delivery,” Brad Bell, professor of HR studies and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University, said in an interview.

To Bell, the most interesting thing for those in training to watch in the 2020s won’t be whether more learning moves online, but how tech will guide learners to what’s already there. That’s in line with trends toward greater diversification of learning, which Britt described. Employers have already seen fragmentation of learning by content, format, expertise level and delivery model, among other categories, and this is likely to continue further as providers tailor content to individuals.

“They’re trying to respond to a specific type of use case with a specific type of user, with a specific type of content,” Britt said. “I don’t really know what the taxonomy is — maybe some sort of a Dewey Decimal System for online learning.”

Britt said he believes online learning is taking cues from the media industry, which has experienced its own transformation thanks to the decline of mass markets. Different subsets of learning audiences with their own needs have emerged, he said. Employers will be responsible for selecting the correct partners to solve for their workforces.

I don’t really know what the taxonomy is — maybe some sort of a Dewey Decimal System for online learning.

Any number of solutions could emerge in the coming years, and Britt said he expects employers will see formats comparable to Peloton or mobile gaming. Others will appeal to workers who want more of a self-directed experience, or to those who prefer to be surrounded by a community.

Boot camps, apprenticeships and other non-online formats are sure to exist as well, but “nothing is as effective as advertised,” Wingard said. In his conversations with employers, he said he has found that their biggest concerns are not how employees learn, but that they want to learn in the first place. “The answer is always the same — they are looking for lifelong learners,” he said.

Tech intriguing, but don’t get caught up in novelty

Learning delivery has also changed, particularly with the advent of virtual reality, augmented reality and similar “extended reality” technologies. A variety of use cases have emerged, including those that can train employees who operate remotely with limited internet access. Organizations like Walmart are using VR to assess some employees for promotions.

Though the tech has grown, sources say it won’t eclipse all other forms of learning. Employers will most likely use it in situations that would be difficult to replicate or that present a high safety risk. “You can either fly out someone to an oil rig or surgery room to do that kind of hands-on training, or you can replicate that elsewhere,” Ryan Fennerty, enterprise account director at education provider General Assembly, told HR Dive in an interview. “Those are the types of places where the enthusiasm is met by the rationale.”

Others, like Joe Miller, vice president of learning design and strategy at online learning platform BenchPrep, speculate that employers might eventually encounter technology that could do away with device interfaces entirely. “You could have a sufficiently advanced program that, on its own, could be learning and could be able to feed [the learner] information,” Miller told HR Dive in an interview. He isn’t sure what form such a technology might take, but said he expects tech to become more adaptive to users generally.

But delivery may not be the biggest space for emerging solutions. Bell thinks technologies, perhaps in the form of robotic advisors deploying artificial intelligence, might be able to provide a guidance function to employees. AI could provide a “skills inference,” Bell said, figuring out what type of learning content a user might engage with and what aligns with their skill development needs.

Experts hopeful for more advanced analytics and data

Shiny applications will require more robust calculations for more employers to get on board, however. Bell said he’s looking forward to a broader focus on analytics in the space, “not just measurement for the sake of measurement.” Those in charge of talent development, he said, could do better at identifying the gaps that affect individual and organizational performance.

Organizations largely are trying to do this work, Fennerty said, but thanks to rapid changes in digital tech, “all that kind of anxiety and fear is being accelerated.” Employers are having trouble keeping up with changes even at the individual position level, he added.

It’s up to HR to partner with those who have expertise in analytics and to build systems that will lead to better problem-solving in training programs down the road. “Success builds success,” said Fennerty, who suggested employers take the same long-view to improving training that many have with initiatives like campus recruiting. “It took years for these types of resources to be built,” he said. “We like to think that’s true for this too.”

Taming the ‘Wild West’ of credentialing

Part of the problem with defining success is verifying whether training actually works. Though the number of organizations and programs that offer workers credentials have proliferated, critics have long complained of their shortcomings. A lack of common standards can make it difficult to determine what a given credential really signals about an applicant.

“It’s been a bit of the Wild West,” Bell said of the credentialing space, noting the abundance of organizations that now use certificates including “badges” that learners can earn. “What we’re likely to see is maybe some consolidation of that.”

Some organizations are looking to carve out a space for their own solution to the problem. Last year, IBM announced the launch of a digital credentialing platform that will use blockchain technology, providing applicants a “permanent, verifiable record” of their learning. Standardization may help to ease problems with some credentials, but it also may end up being unfair to some applicants, according to Miller.

“I want to say, ‘great, let’s have a standard,’ but things change so quickly,” he said. “To not, though, it does kind of leave this open frontier.”

The key issue is not only changing roles but also the problem of scale, Fennerty said. Skills assessments may be able to get at verification, but even that may not be enough in the face of change, he noted.

As we get further and further away from that college degree, for me it ends up being more of that relevant experience

Uncertainty in the credentialing market may be a challenge but, ultimately, employers just want to know that workers can do the job, sources noted. “Employers are highly pragmatic,” Britt said. “At the end of the day their object is the utility of the learning.”

Miller concurred, noting that requisite experience has weighed most heavily in his hiring experiences, and that companies are increasingly looking at skills tests as job requirements shift. “As we get further and further away from that college degree, for me it ends up being more of that relevant experience,” Miller said.

Despite the back-and-forth over credentials, there’s no wrong way to prepare workers for the future. “If you give your employees the opportunity to complete digital badges or competency-based programs, it will only increase their ability to learn and their knowledge base,” Wingard said. “If that is best accomplished through an outside provider, so be it.”

Will employers really keep up their commitments?

The Amazon effect

In 2019 and in years prior, employers saw large businesses make highly publicized investments in employee training. Perhaps the most notable such announcement came from Amazon, which pledged $700 million over the course of six years.

Amazon wasn’t the only company to make such an announcement, though at the time sources including Britt told HR Dive that the company had essentially “raised the bar” for what employers offer to prospective employees in terms of training. Britt still believes this is true, comparing the promise of training to a company’s minimum wage policies. “Eventually, if everybody in that market has raised their wages, I’m going to have to do so in order to compete,” he said.

Though Miller also expects to see companies make announcements of similar scale, he also said employers will first need to consider whether additional training will actually improve productivity, and whether they can be efficient in delivering the training. “It’s not going to be altruistic, in a sense,” Miller said.

The counter-narrative

Others who spoke to HR Dive said they’re unsure such investments will continue, however. “How much of this is being driven by the labor market that we have?,” Bell said. Employers, he explained, are being innovative when it comes to talent development in part because talent is scarce. “My hope is it continues even if and when we enter a recession ... but I’m not sure.”

Employers ultimately have more choices than simply to “upskill” or “reskill” today’s employees, and those include gig workers and, of course, whatever efficiencies automation may introduce.

“While I would love to say that we will see similar investments for jobs that require some form of additional training besides a traditional degree, I think the future is uncertain,” Wingard said. “I think employers will ultimately go with the most financially sound option. Whether that ends up being a massive reskilling effort or an entirely new employee structure remains to be seen.”

But Britt noted that a downturn may not necessarily decrease the demand for training. Employees in sectors like manufacturing, where some decline is expected, will still need training to keep with a quicker pace of change.

I think employers will ultimately go with the most financially sound option. Whether that ends up being a massive reskilling effort or an entirely new employee structure remains to be seen.

It’s unclear how well employers will be able to tackle the problem of reskilling in the first place. “The jury is still out,” Fennerty said, “these things are difficult to do at scale.” It’s difficult even for those ingrained in the space to know how to bring workers who don’t have many skills for a particular skill set and to train them for that same skill set. Self-directed learning, he added, isn’t always the best tool to achieve competency.


Although there are still uncertainties, sources generally agreed that employers have taken note of the need to invest in development. Years of cuts to L&D budgets are ending, Bell said, and employers realize that operating on a “buy” strategy alone won’t be enough to compete moving forward.

Employers will also increasingly feel pressure to do “outskilling,” Britt said, in advance of announcing layoffs or similar waves of job cuts. Company executives, he explained, won’t be excused from knowing that massive numbers of people are about to lose their jobs due to the risk posed to the employer’s brand. “You just can’t sit on that information,” Britt said. “The weaponization of social media has changed the game.”

Instead, employers will train employees for their next job as a talent attraction and retention tool. Helping employees land on their feet, Britt said, will be essential to preserving brand loyalty.

Fennerty noted a similar trend. Employers know that the fear of being left behind by coming changes is dramatically affecting worker morale: “Employers are concerned about the unspoken agreement between employees and themselves,” Fennerty said. “A lot of these relationships are more transactional than many of these companies want them to be.”

Ultimately, employers will have to find success in the next decade partly by tapping into workers’ own motivation for training. No organization or individual can be prepared for every eventuality, according to Wingard, which is why employers are increasingly looking for employees who demonstrate adaptability and commitment to learning.

“Discussions about the skills gap are not meant to terrify,” Wingard said. “They are simply meant to acknowledge the basic truth that the professional realm is evolving, and workers must be willing to evolve alongside it.”