Lifelong learning, Udacity

Job opportunities continue to grow in emerging spaces such as virtual reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles. At the same time, existing roles in fields from healthcare to finance are changing dramatically as new tools and technologies are adopted. The concept of lifelong learning is accordingly transforming from a discretionary aspiration to a career necessity. No longer is it a supplemental luxury to learn new skills, and no longer is learning new skills something you do only when you’re pursuing a significant career change. Being relevant, competitive, and in-demand in today’s fast-moving world requires an ongoing commitment to lifelong learning regardless of your role or career path.

The proven ability to keep learning

Jonas Prising (Chairman & CEO, ManpowerGroup) wrote an article recently entitled “The Job for Life Model is Dead. Here’s What Millennials Need to Know” in which he prophesied that:

Going forward, we’ll need a generation of workers who are hungry to learn and eager to keep pace with the times. They will pioneer new ways of combining business and technology to be more productive, and they’ll update old work models to match. Organizations across industries will look for curious, flexible, data-driven minds in both blue collar and white collar jobs. They’ll want people with the proven ability to keep learning and stay relevant in their field of expertise; people who actively pursue opportunities where their transferable skills might be applicable.

While Prising is ostensibly targeting millennials, his message about “learnability” (which Prising defines as the ability to grow and adapt skills to remain employable throughout one’s working life) is a universally applicable one: “In a fast-changing world, learnability is how to stay relevant and move on and move up.”

The need to retool

These sentiments mirror much of what Aaron McLean (Principal Technical Architect for IT Service Management at AT&T) details in “A Passion For Education: Aaron McLean, AT&T and Udacity.” This post offers a first-person account of what Pirsig describes in his article as “an ambitious, company-wide effort to rapidly retrain 280,000 employees” at AT&T. McLean’s descriptions of the impact this effort had on his own career, and on the careers of the team members he managed, is both deeply heartwarming, and intensely instructive. These were individuals with great jobs at a great company, yet they were still facing a critical reality—one very precisely summarized by AT&T’s Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson:

“There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.”

New roles, new skills

The AT&T example offers a use case in which the dedicated talent was there, and the skills needed were clear—what remained was the actual process of skilling up the workforce. But this scenario isn’t always the case. When you consider the pace of innovation in emerging fields such as autonomous vehicles and virtual reality, the skills aren’t always so clearly defined or understood, and the talent isn’t necessarily there yet. In a recent article about Self-Driving Cars in Recode, Udacity Founder and President Sebastian Thurn discusses this new reality:

“I’m surrounded by companies that are desperate for talent. Non-traditional players are joining the field and they’re all building substantial teams. But the skill set to build a self-driving car is a multidisciplinary skill set, and that broad skill set is just not there.”

Thrun goes on to assert a sort of unwritten rule of technology:

“It’s a very simple instance of a law that is fundamentally true: technology is moving so fast, that by definition when something becomes hot, the skill set doesn’t exist.”

In that same Recode article, Axel Gern (Head of Autonomous Driving, North America, for Mercedes-Benz) points up the fact that the existing university system is not producing the needed talent:

“There’s a huge hype around autonomous driving. There are many competitors in the field. But the number of people you can hire right out of university who are being educated in the field are limited. You’re looking for experts in computer vision, robotics, intelligent systems artificial intelligence and so on.”

As one absorbs these perspectives, it starts to become clear why we’re going to need the “new generation of workers” that Prising foreshadows.

Agile talent, and the on-demand economy

Into this fray of changing needs and demands inevitably comes the idea of “agile talent,” and the growing significance of what is generally referred to as either the “gig” or the “on-demand” economy. As fast-moving technologies and quickly changing demands emerge as potential challenges, fast-moving hiring practices and quick-learning talent emerge as potential solutions.

Lauren Holliday of freelanship.com recently interviewed Jonathan Younger, a co-author of the book Agile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts, for an article entitled “The Strategy Udacity Uses to Scale Rapidly.” In her article she includes a quote from Younger, in which he offers a clear-eyed enunciation of why we’re seeing these sorts of modern revisions to pre-existing hiring models:

“Agile talent is powered by what we call, cloud resourcing. The allusion to cloud computing is intentional; cloud is a synonym for distributed computing over a network and reflects the greater ability of organizations to increase speed and efficiency by running applications on many connected computers at the same time. Cloud resourcing reflects the ability of organizations to access a global talent network that offers a greater range of skills, on a more cost-efficient basis, than is available from traditional models of employment and that enjoys a far broader variety of resourcing arrangements.”

Holliday segues from this quote into her own summation:

“Consumers have high expectations in today’s on-demand, always-on economy. The need for speed has never been greater, forcing leaders to assess whether traditional, full-time, onsite employees are still the optimal — or only — route to injecting creativity and speed into their organizations.”

Lifelong learning

The emphasis on creativity, speed, and efficiency is a theme that runs through all the perspectives gathered here, and we are now led to a seemingly inevitable conclusion—smaller, faster, smarter approaches to higher learning are a necessity for both companies and workers.

However, one question that rises in the wake of discussions around agile talent and the gig economy is this—must the two go hand-in-hand? Meaning, can the agile workers of the future fill full-time, longer-term roles? Or must they out of necessity transform into freelancers, contractors, and consultants—or what Younger refers to as “outside experts”?

If the example provided by Aaron McLean and AT&T is any indication, then the next generation of workers can continue to fill comparatively “traditional” roles (full-time, longer-term, etc.). But to succeed in those roles, they’ll need to wholeheartedly embrace a lifelong learning ethos that is proactive, flexible, and omnivorous when it comes to knowledge and new skills. Only by doing so can they remain relevant, competitive, and in-demand. At the same time, technology and the globalization of talent together ensure that on-demand hiring practices will continue to become more strategically valuable to more and more companies. So ultimately, we all need to embrace lifelong learning, regardless of our roles and careers.

The future of work

A 2016 report issued by the World Economic Forum entitled Future Workforce Strategy offers detailed insights on all the issues discussed herein, and the report is highly recommended. While the prescriptions proposed in the report are largely targeted to businesses, they’re well worth understanding for anyone interested in—and invested in—the future of work. Of particular interest are what the report terms as areas for “Longer Term Focus.” Three areas in particular are highlighted, and each is listed below, with a representative excerpt from the report’s recommendations:

Rethinking education systems

“Businesses should work closely with governments, education providers and others to imagine what a true 21st century curriculum might look like.”

Incentivizing lifelong learning

“Simply reforming current education systems to better equip today’s students to meet future skills requirements—as worthwhile and daunting as that task is—is not going to be enough to remain competitive.”

Cross-industry and public-private collaboration

“Businesses should work with industry partners to develop a clearer view on future skills and employment needs, pooling resources where appropriate to maximize benefits … Such multi-sector partnerships and collaboration, when they leverage the expertise of each partner in a complementary manner, are indispensable components of implementing scalable solutions to jobs and skills challenges.”

The proven ability to keep learning

At Udacity, we are committed to very similar objectives and strategies. Our industry partnerships are critical to the success of our approach, both in terms of establishing “a true 21st century curriculum,” and for developing a “clearer view on future skills and employee needs.” Our emphasis on skills mastery through a learn-by-doing approach is fueled by our desire to see every student we teach be in-demand. And our compact, flexible, and economical offerings are expressly built to make lifelong learning possible for all who commit to pursuing it.

If, as Prising writes, employers are going to want workers with “the proven ability to keep learning,” then it may be said that our goal at Udacity is to offer everyone on the planet the opportunity to prove exactly that—that they have the ability to keep learning!

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