The Great Skills Gap
Optimizing Talent for the Future of Work
Edited by Jason Wingard and Christine Farrugia



AN EXTRAORDINARY CONFLUENCE of powerful forces is transforming both the world of work and the ways we educate current and future employees to contribute productively to the workplace. Automation and digital technologies are already profoundly transforming how business is done at every level, and alarming predictions of our jobs being replaced by robots abound. While the most catastrophic of these scenarios is overblown, there are seismic shifts afoot across industries and roles that reach beyond manufacturing—where industry disruption has been a mainstay for decades—to professional occupations where the prospect of job displacement due to automation seems to many like a far-off possibility rather than a looming threat. With these changes comes immense uncertainty for what the future holds in terms of what our jobs will look like and whether they will exist at all.

As with all things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. The realistic scenario is that jobs will not evaporate entirely, but they will change, perhaps substantially. Robots will not replace us. Instead, humans will work with machines and artificial intelligence in new ways. As technologies develop, they will open new lines of business and create roles that will demand skilled workers. The jobs we know today will be reinvented into something new—and perhaps unrecognizable—in the future.

A transformation is underway at the nexus where the world of work meets the world of higher education. The exploding scope and pace of technological innovation in the digital age is fast transforming the fundamental nature of work, and many of the shifts have already begun. The gig economy is prevalent. Companies like Lyft and Airbnb offer technologies that capitalize on this trend, and Google now has more contract employees than regular full-time workers.1 Automation is also influencing the way people work. For example, to better respond to customer demand for personalized cars, Mercedes-Benz moved from a “dumb” robot system on the S-class sedan assembly line to a “cobot” system. Cobots—robotic arms operated by human workers—combine the power of robotic methods with the agility of humans who are able to execute judgment and adapt quickly.2 These developments, and their rapid pace, are shifting the skills and preparation that employers need from their talent pool.

At its core, the ability to successfully navigate toward the future of work relies on workers receiving training that is relevant for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow. Employers are grappling with these dilemmas of how to transform their current workforce to meet future business needs in a rapidly changing environment. Employers face the challenge of anticipating how their industries and companies will change, and then crafting training and hiring strategies to meet their needs now and into the future. The difficulty of this task rests in the element of the unknown. What will the jobs of tomorrow look like? Which of the skills that workers possess today will still be relevant in five, ten, or twenty years?

Employers are already developing strategies to expand their pipelines of skilled talent and to train and retain their workers. Google and Ernst & Young are turning away from a college degree as a predictor of on-the-job success and have opened numerous professional positions to workers with the requisite skills, regardless of whether they have a college degree.3 Corporate-backed training options are growing in prevalence and type. TSYS has implemented a program to retrain their older workers with the future skills that their company needs so they are able to adapt within the company.4 IBM now offers a menu of training options for “new-collar” jobs that require some training but fall short of needing a college degree. The company offers programs such as digital badge portfolios, apprenticeships, and bootcamps to groom the talent it needs.5 In an effort to attract and retain young talent, Walmart offers college tuition benefits and a platform to access online degree programs.6

While employers are grappling with how to ensure a pipeline of skilled talent for the future, higher education also has a role to play. Colleges and universities have traditionally fed their graduates into skilled occupations, largely relying on the liberal arts model of education that has defined US higher education since its inception. However, within the changing employment landscape, there are questions about how well the current higher education model is positioned to continue launching its graduates into productive careers. Indeed, the future of work creates an imperative for radically rethinking the purpose and current approach to employment readiness by higher education institutions.

The Future of Work and Its Implications for Higher Education

Workforce disruption is a dominant theme in the future of work. Increasing levels of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are replacing workers and reshaping the world of work. McKinsey estimates that by 2030 about half of work activities could be automated.7 For example, in the medical field, AI approaches are being developed to harness massive amounts of health data so that machines can diagnose illnesses, and these tools are showing the potential to be more accurate than doctors.8 Media companies are already using AI to mine data sets to generate newsworthy insights, to create article content, and to automate and optimize content distribution across channels, placing pressure on traditional jobs in journalism.9 Industries, employees, companies, and technologies are already being developed, disrupted, or reconfigured in unforeseen ways, illustrating how the jobs we know today may not exist in the future.

The accelerated pace of evolution and disruption in the competitive business landscape demands that workers not only be technically proficient but also exceptionally agile in their capacity to think and act creatively and quickly learn new skills. Employee capabilities in leadership, teamwork, and communications are also paramount. In turn, those changes are motivating significant, even revolutionary change in the way educational institutions prepare learners for careers. Forward-thinking colleges and universities are reshaping instruction and the curriculum to ensure that they invest learners with skills appropriate to the twenty-first-century economy.

In addition to technological disruption, demographic forces are also affecting the workplace, compelling higher education to respond in turn. The increased longevity of human beings means that many careers will span sixty years or more, creating a sustained need for continual “reskilling” so that workers remain productive with relevant skills.10 Meanwhile, evolving demographic trends are shattering the relative homogeneity that once defined the workforce by opening the pipeline to employment for a more diverse employee population. The ability to achieve workforce parity and diversity relies on higher education graduating a diverse pool of talent with the skills and knowledge needed to move into professional occupations.

To meet the challenges of a dynamic, fast-evolving workplace, employers seek workers who can think creatively and act nimbly. Employees need both the preparation to contribute substantively to their workplaces from day one, as well as an educational framework that will enable them to retool their skills continually over the course of a career that might endure for sixty years or more.

Within this context, higher education faces new demands in supporting the development of a workforce invested with twenty-first-century skills. Higher education has a paramount role to play in ably preparing learners to meet the immediate requirements of the workplace, as well as the uncertain demands of the future. Many higher education leaders believe they do this well. However, the Strada-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey found that while nearly all (96 percent) of chief academic officers in colleges and universities believe their institution is effective in preparing future workers, just 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree with them.11

As the workplace undergoes transformation wrought by automation, technological innovation, globalization, and demographic shifts, the skills and training that employers require are evolving. At the same time, higher education is facing pressures to prepare students so that they are employable, ready to contribute to innovation, and able to craft meaningful careers over their lifetimes. In the future of work, the ability of higher education and industry to work collaboratively and productively is paramount to achieving these ends.

About This Book

This book examines the gap between employers and higher education and considers their ability to collaboratively address the coming challenges in the future of work. The book’s content is guided by the overarching question of what higher education’s special role is in addressing employment needs of the future. Employers and higher education do not always talk well with each other, so in this book we bring these two groups together, along with intermediary organizations—such as nonprofits, foundations, and think tanks—that work between higher education and employers to help facilitate system solutions. The book’s contributions from leading educators, prominent employers, and other thought leaders frame relevant considerations for both business and higher education and suggest specific strategies for improving workforce preparation.

This book is structured in three parts that present the views of each stakeholder group. Part I (“Talent of the Future: Are We Missing the Mark?”) examines issues around automation, demographics, economic disruption, and related trends that are transforming the fundamental nature of work and the workplace, exploring the ways technology will transform the world of work and how the workplace should respond. With such change as context, how can we ensure that employees have the right skill sets for work in the future?

The chapters in Part I explore how automation and other technological advancements will affect workplace practices and employers’ demands for workplace skills. The authors consider how best to tackle the challenges of training emerging professionals and reskilling seasoned talent through higher education, workplace training programs, or alternative credentialing models. Several contributors argue for the primacy of the human experience through humanistic workplace practices, retraining efforts that advance individuals’ development and employment prospects, and a global understanding of the world and the people in it.

Part II (“Higher Education: Still the Solution for a Workforce in Flux?”) raises the question of how higher education can or should adapt to better meet the needs of tomorrow’s workplace. Fundamental changes in the workplace are driving significant changes in the ways that colleges and universities help prepare learners for careers and for their lives as citizens. Responding in part to concerns from employers that many new employees lack the requisite skills that businesses need, colleges and universities are engaging in change on several fronts.

Institutions are developing academic programs and cocurricular tools like makerspaces and apprenticeships to help students across a spectrum of majors to develop practical skills in emerging technologies. Across the curriculum, institutions are focusing on ways to help students develop crucial workforce skills like teamwork, goal setting, effective interpersonal communication, and conflict resolution. There is increasing recognition that the liberal arts—recently in disfavor in some more career-centric circles—invests students with a rich panoply of skills that employers value, including creative thinking and idea synthesis and the capacity to solve problems and drive innovation. Higher education is embracing an evolving palette of tools—including online learning, microlearning, credentials beyond degrees, experiential learning, bootcamps, competency-based education, and more—that help better prepare their students for the jobs of tomorrow. Professional and continuing education are booming, serving expanding needs of adult workers for lifelong retooling and “upskilling” across the course of increasingly longer careers.

In light of these contexts, Part II explores key questions, such as how continuing education can help adult learners “unlearn” deeply held identities and reinvent themselves in the process of upskilling to new occupational roles. Chapter authors reflect on the new relevance of the liberal arts in the era of rapid technological advancement and explore how students and professionals in today’s workplace can marry expertise drawn from the liberal arts with more purely technical skills. The ways in which alumni learning and university strategies to better serve their graduates are evolving in the digital era are explored in depth.

Part III (“Bridging the Gap between Learning and Labor”) delves into the perspectives of system facilitators to explore solutions and innovations to help business and higher education to find more effective ways to join forces in support of their respective needs, in order to help traditional and posttraditional students gain the skills they need for tomorrow’s workplace. How can the worlds of commerce and academe collaborate effectively to better understand their respective motivations and work together to capitalize on emerging opportunities?

Insights about the changing nature of work and preparation for the workplace of tomorrow underscore the need for better communication and richer collaborations between employers and institutions of higher learning. Chapter authors reflect on how business and higher education can develop agile partnerships to meet the challenges of changing labor markets and evolving economies.

Among other critical questions, Part III examines the systemic problems in higher education that prevent students from graduating with the capacity to fully serve the demands of the contemporary workplace. It further considers how universities can sustain their mandate to prepare future citizens while also delivering highly relevant vocational training, including apprenticeships, and what role business can play in supporting lifelong learning for employees. Also explored are the challenges of fostering a culture of learning and growth to motivate workers to embrace and capitalize on technological change, as well as persistent questions about how to ensure that tomorrow’s workplace is broadly accessible to a diverse cadre of workers.


1. Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Google’s Shadow Work Force: Temps Who Outnumber Full-Time Employees,” New York Times, May 28, 2019, technology/google-temp-workers.html.

2. H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty, “Collaborative Intelligence: Humans and AI Are Joining Forces,” Harvard Business Review, July 1, 2018, intelligence-humans-and-ai-are-joining-forces.

3. “15 More Companies That No Longer Require a Degree—Apply Now,” Glassdoor Blog, August 14, 2018, /blog/no-degree-required/; Corinne Purtill, “Apple, IBM, and Google Don’t Care Anymore If You Went to College,” Quartz at Work, August 23, 2018, ibm-and-google-dont-require-a-college-degree/.

4. Vanessa Fuhrmans, “How a Company’s Aging Workforce Retrained Itself for the Cloud,” Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2019, aging-workforce-retrained-itself-for-the-cloud-11572192001.

5. Paul Fain, “Interview with IBM Official about the Company’s ‘New-Collar’ Push to Look beyond College Degrees,” Inside Higher Ed, October 29, 2019, /2019/10/29/interview-ibm-official-about-companys-new-collar-push-look.

6. Lauren Thomas, “Walmart Is Going after High School Students in War for Talent,” CNBC, June 4, 2019, walmart-is-going-after-high-school-students-in-war-for-talent.html.

7. J. Manyika, S. Lund, M. Chui, J. Bughin, J. Woetzel, P. Batra, R. Ko, & S. Sanghvi, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation,” McKinsey & Company, 2017.

8. Jörg Goldhahn, Vanessa Rampton, and Giatgen A. Spinas, “Could Artificial Intelligence Make Doctors Obsolete?” BMJ 363 (2018): k4563, 1136/bmj.k4563.

9. Stefan Hall, “Can You Tell If This Article Was Written by a Robot? 7 Challenges for AI in Journalism,” World Economic Forum, January 15, 2018, -article-was-written-by-a-robot-7-challenges-for-ai-in-journalism/.

10. C. Dede & J. Richards (Eds.), The 60-Year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Economy, New York: Routledge, 2020.

11. Strada Education Network and Gallup, 2017 College Student Survey: A Nationally Representative Survey of Currently Enrolled Students (Washington, DC: Gallup, 2017).