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Harvard’s Willy Shih: Employers Must Invest in Lifelong Learning for Regions to Survive

To kick off the Detroit Regional Chamber’s fifth annual State of the Region event, Prof. Willy C. Shih of Harvard Business School discussed why retraining America’s workforce to adapt the skills needed for modern jobs should be a key priority for local business leaders in 2019.

Education in the United States is frontloaded at the beginning of an individual’s career. After college-aged students enter the workforce, the amount of money spent (by the individual and their employer) on continued education drastically declines.

What happens to the adults who grow out of having an employable skillset, but still have another 10-15 years to contribute to the workforce? These individuals are often displaced in an economy that is talent-hungry.

Investment in continuous education is one component of what Harvard Business School calls “The Commons.” The Commons is defined as “a set of communal resources allowing businesses and people to thrive.” Education is a communal resource, and businesses must invest in their employees for them to thrive.

Shih and his students recently traveled the country to find examples of how communities are investing in displaced workers. Some examples from his study include:

  • Businesses develop short programs to retrain individuals in modern skillsets, such as apprenticeship or internship programs.
  • Universities and community colleges offer “stackable credentials”: industry-recognized credentials that can be earned over time and will be applicable in finding work over the short-term. Additional credentials can be added later, when feasible for the individual.
  • Community colleges provide resources to meet the basic needs of individuals to ensure their success in learning a new trade. Some examples include a clothing pantry for proper interview attire, a food pantry, and daycare services. Until these needs are met, individuals cannot attempt to seek employment.
  • New employers convince candidates of their potential. Sometimes candidates are eligible for work in a new position but they have been displaced for so long they no longer believe in their ability. Encouraging these individuals to live up to their full potential was one responsibility some local leaders took upon themselves in the study.

Shih concluded that it will take local educators, government leaders, and businesses working together to retrain the workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The Chamber is a long-time proponent of improving education opportunities for adults and its Detroit Drives Degrees initiative works is poised to lead this charge.

Shih’s keynote presentation was followed by a moderated conversation with WDIV-TV 4 anchor Devin Scillian. Read highlights of the discussion or download the State of the Region report to see how Southeast Michigan benchmarks against peer regions.