How the top barriers to upskilling American workers impact the workforce

Employers and workers see a world filled with uncertainty and change — from conversations about AI and automation replacing or helping certain job fields to questions around which skills are needed to thrive in an economy shaped by continuous technological change.

One vital way for employees to improve how well they do their jobs and prepare to advance their careers is by upskilling — known as the process of expanding or developing new skills to better perform in a current job or improve career prospects.

A new survey, "Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce," reveals how significant barriers to upskilling persist, resulting in fewer women and people of color having access to the skills they need, despite many organizations working to upskill the workforce. The research, conducted by Reputation Leaders and sponsored by DeVry University, provides an in-depth look at American workers and their growing interest in skills development, which is critical for employee career advancement, as well as for business growth and economic competitiveness.

Unequal access and opportunity

The study on upskilling found that women face persistent barriers, showing men are much more likely to report having access to upskilling (73%) than women (56%). This lack of access leaves women at risk of leaving their current employer at twice the rate of men, with 28% reporting they feel stuck in their positions and less able to advance in their careers. On top of that, women cite a lack of time and family priorities as barriers to learning.

Also, according to the survey, people of color have the most interest in upskilling, but the least access. The survey found that 80% of Black and 71% of Hispanic workers who do not have access to company-paid upskilling would be very or extremely likely to use it, as opposed to 62% of white workers.

Although 66% of Black, Hispanic, and AAPI workers acknowledge upskilling as necessary for future career development, only 42% currently access company-paid upskilling. This is due in part to systemic barriers — with an average of 37% of Black, Hispanic and AAPI workers agreeing that workplace bias creates impediments to their upskilling goals.

The "say/do" gap

This research further indicates that too many American employees are falling through a "say/do gap" — they say ongoing focused skills development is essential to their careers, but do not actually participate. Even with employers (97%) and employees (96%) unanimously agreeing that upskilling is essential to professional success, employers and employees alike acknowledge they could be doing more to take advantage of skills development opportunities or to support access to those opportunities.

Only 1 in 3 workers think employers live up to their responsibility to prepare American workers for the future workplace, while employers estimate that only half (51%) of workers use company-paid upskilling offered to them. As the "say/do" gap expands and the labor market undergoes transformations that demand new skill sets, employers and workers must address the systemic obstacles keeping workers from accessing critical opportunities for career growth.

"Especially for workers of color and women, the barriers to upskilling make the gap between how they might want to upskill and being able to make that happen even wider," said DeVry University's Chief Inclusion, Belonging and Equity Officer Veronica Calderon. "This puts employers and employees alike at a disadvantage as the world of work and technology continues to evolve."

Finding solutions

A failure to develop a future-ready workforce will have far-reaching, negative effects on productivity, efficiency and economic growth in the U.S. To address the now obvious say/do gap, workers and employers must take action.

Educational institutions, such as DeVry, with flexible and customized programs for learners, can help provide more opportunities for upskilling in a wide variety of fields. In addition, the university's workforce solutions division, DeVryWorks, marries worker and employer needs to identify and deliver learning solutions.

"Today's jobs economy is evolving at a rapid rate, so the ability for workers to adapt means the difference between career and business success and stagnation," said Scarlett Howery, vice president, Public Workforce Solutions at DeVry. "Continued skills development and growth is essential not just for employees to excel, but for the continued success of any business or organization."

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