Tension Between Workforce Development, Self-Directed Learning & The Liberal Arts

Some of you who frequent my blog have noticed the inconsistencies in what I write. I openly acknowledge them. Much of my writing is about exploring the possibilities and refining my thinking about life and learning in the digital age. That means exploring the affordances and limitations of various emerging practices, ideas and innovations. Sometimes I focus on the affordances. Other times I look at the limitations. On occasion, I manage to get both in a single article. Regardless, this means that I will gladly celebrate possible benefits of a movement or approach at one point, while expressing my concerns and potential negative implications at another time. That is the long introduction to this post about the internal battle I often have between many aspects of workforce development and the underlying philosophy for much of my writing about self-directed learning and human agency. They don’t always fit well together, although I do see some potential and promising synergies.

Workforce development is a phrase that is used in many ways, but much of the conversation historically focused on the need for a given workforce and how we can develop people to meet those needs in certain job sectors. This is why we read and hear people talk about things like “the skills gap.” They ask things like, “What are the skills needed to meet the growing demand for manufacturing jobs?”

Many advocates of workforce development (including myself) are deeply interested in benefitting the lives of people by helping them find employment, equipping them with the skills that are in demand. These are often efforts to directly connect people with the training needed to fill identified and specific jobs in areas like healthcare or manufacturing. Yet, the conversation is frequently framed in terms of developing a workforce and reducing unemployment. Or, some talk about it as helping businesses be successful, meeting the needs of the employers. As such, it is repeatedly framed in terms of solving a workforce “problem” more than about empowering people.

Yet, this concept of workforce development has expanded. Workforce development is not just about filling gaps in the workforce, but it is a perspective that looks at how to create economic stability in a given region (or even a nation) by developing the “human resources” needed to reach such a goal. Part of economic stability involves creating pathways to gainful employment. It is not just about training, but also about removing barriers to quality education and the conditions necessary to progress toward higher paying and high quality of life employment situations. As such, there is still a focus on addressing a broader social and economic need, but there is also a keen interest in improving the lives of people through the opportunities and resources that come from skilled employment. Some approaches seek to develop the skills of people so that they can meet current employment demands. Others focus more on getting people in the workforce quickly, then equipping them with increased skills that allow for promotions, additional responsibilities or other promising employment in the future.

Then there is the psychological aspect to this conversation. Sometimes amid workforce development discourse you hear reference to gainful employment. That phrase appears to have origins in positive psychology. It represents an interest in employment because of how it can benefit an individual’s well-being. It is about things like increasing quality of life, reducing depression, helping people find meaning and pride in their life’s work, etc. Gainful employment is not just about reducing unemployment. It is also involved with topics like work conditions, the pride that comes from a job well done and/or progressing toward valued goals, job satisfaction, and a sense of engagement with one’s work. Of course, it also relates to the good that comes from earning a wage that allows one to care for self and family.

Not everyone supports a workforce development approach. Critics of workforce development approaches argue that too many of these efforts equip people for current work by providing task-specific training, but they do not prepare them for the rapidly changing demands of work in many sectors. As such, immediate needs are met, but the people meeting those needs may find themselves ill-equipped for the demands of the workplace in a few years. Still others argue that we are treating people like resources with this focus, and that we need a more humanitarian mindset. People are a means to stabilize the economy, fill the needs of business, or even a way to make sure the nation stays competitive on a global scale. Where is the attention to the unique gifts, needs, talents and abilities of the individual?

Still others argue that this is a dangerous shift in education away from a liberal arts focus which seeks to nurture wise, thoughtful, and ethical citizens. Critics might also contend that a heavy emphasis upon workforce development has turned attention in K-12 education away from a place of raising up citizens to equipping future workers. Since many workforce development efforts depend upon close connection with employers, the question of employer needs from graduates becomes a more dominant conversation, as illustrated in my recent article about what employers want from college graduates.

I’ve even noticed a growing shift in how employers support continuing education for employees in some sectors. Some employers are more strict about what type of continuing education they will financially support because the perk is not seen as support for an individual’s personal goals and development as much as about increasing the employee’s performance on the job. In my own state, this is showing upon in public school districts, where there are more strings and stipulations tied to reimbursement for ongoing formal education and graduate degrees. They want to see how it will directly benefit the goals of the school or district. Given leadership’s responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer money, this seems easily justifiable, but it is a shift from former times.

While not necessarily an inherent limitation to workforce development conversations, there tends to be less dialogue, at least on the policy level, about helping people discover and develop their distinct gifts, talents, and abilities. It is rare to hear workforce development texts or advocates discuss the importance or role of calling in a person’s life, a topic that captivates my interest. And while it does happen, there is also less conversation about nurturing a growing sense of human agency.

One exception relates to the positive psychology interest in gainful employment as a means of achieving increased quality of life, but even that seems to focus more on well-being and less on agency. Agency appears to be described more as a means to well-being than an a value in and of itself. Also, work in sociology around human agency is largely interested in the capacity for people to make choices that impact their lives. It is about moving from a sense of dependence to a growing capacity for independence, about experiencing life as something that is done to one compared to something over which a person has a fair measure of influence.

Yet, as I see it, the growing movement around self-directed learning is closely tied to concepts of agency. SDL is routinely contrasted with learning contexts where a person is rewarded for compliance with a teacher’s instructions and expectations more than for identifying goals, establishing a plan for achieving those goals, and making significant progress toward increased competence, excellence or some form of achievement. The former seeks to educate a person in a certain way of thinking or acting, where the latter is most interested in helping one develop a growing sense of personal competence and confidence, along with the ability to learn apart from formal contexts, requirements or expectations. There is a focus upon learning how to learn and independence.

This is a gap in much current conversation about workforce development, but I am not convinced that there is an insurmountable separation. I am interested in finding ways to nurture both human agency and a sense of calling alongside the realities of workforce demands and needs. From a US perspective, this comes back to, “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Of course, the first two rights in that list are also present in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well).

How do we get there? It is interesting to note that many of the mindsets and capacities that employers want in employees are not task or skill-specific. Consider, for example, the KORU7: grit, rigor, polish, impact, curiosity, teamwork, and ownership.

These are not the types of capacities nurtured in traditional workforce development efforts simply focused upon filling vacancies in the manufacturing industry through job-specific training. Yet, as one develops mindsets and capacities for things like rigor and grit, that is a person who is far more capable of developing job-specific tasks. These seven resonate with some of the proposed benefits of a liberal arts education. However, there remain significant differences among people on how such mindsets and capacities are best developed. This is where I see promising possibilities for examining the intersection of workforce development, self-directed learning, as well as the traditional liberal arts.