A new survey conducted by Reputation Leaders and sponsored by DeVry University reveals significant barriers to upskilling for U.S. workers, especially for women and people of color, resulting in fewer members of these groups getting access to the skills they need to advance their careers and support business growth.
The report, Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce, provides an in-depth look at American workers and companies and their interest and participation in skills development opportunities, which are critical in driving worker retention, career advancement, business growth and economic competitiveness in a complex global environment.
Overall, the survey indicates that too many American employees are falling through a newly obvious 'say/do gap' – saying ongoing, focused skills development is essential to their careers but not actually participating in it. According to the report's findings, eight in 10 employers say they offer company-paid upskilling benefits yet estimate that only half of workers (51%) use them. The survey also reveals that women and people of color are disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to skills development opportunities due to structural barriers that are not being addressed. This puts both employers and workers at a disadvantage in today's competitive marketplace.
"The American workforce and jobs economy is evolving at a rate never seen before, and the ability for workers to grow and adapt is the difference between career and business success and stagnation. Continued skills development and growth is a necessity, not simply a nice-to-have," says Elise Awwad, President and CEO of survey sponsor DeVry University. "As the leader of an educational institution dedicated to providing learners and employers with the skills they need to succeed, this is an urgent wake-up call for workers, businesses and educators to put action behind the desire to adequately meet the demands of an increasingly competitive labor market and complicated global economy."
While the survey delivers a number of insights regarding employer and worker perspectives on upskilling, the data makes clear that bias and structural barriers persist for certain American workers seeking professional learning opportunities.
Women and People of Color Face Persistent Barriers to Upskilling
The survey uncovered how gender disparities impact access to learning and development opportunities, with 73% of men having access compared to only 56% of women. Despite a majority (55%) stating that upskilling is essential for their future career development, only 37% of surveyed women say they have actually used company-paid skills training – this is compared to 56% of men. This gap in access is contributing to high turnover rates that are seeing women leave their jobs at twice the rate of men, with a lack of time and family obligations considered the biggest obstacles to pursuing upskilling.
The survey also found that Black, Hispanic, and AAPI workers acknowledge upskilling as a necessity for their future career development, yet only 42% currently have access to and use company-paid upskilling. This is due, in part, to systemic barriers and bias – with an average of 37% of Black, Hispanic, and AAPI workers indicating that workplace bias and discrimination are impediments to their own skills development goals. In addition, 80% of Black and 71% of Hispanic workers who do not have access to company-paid skill training would be highly likely to use it, versus 62% of white workers.
An Urgent Wake Up Call
Even with employers (97%) and employees (96%) unanimously agreeing that upskilling is essential or nice to have for continued professional success, both groups acknowledge that they could be doing more to support access to or take advantage of skills development opportunities. Only one in three workers think employers are living up to their responsibility to upskill and ready American workers for the future workplace. The report also examines how workers and employers think and talk about skills priorities differently, which could be contributing to the lack of alignment in what upskilling is needed. The survey found that employers prioritize softer skills like leadership, and workers prioritize hard, more technical skills like AI and software engineering. However, there is common ground between the priorities of these two groups, as hard and soft skills often intersect in learning and development programs.
"As the labor market undergoes a transformation that calls for new skill sets, employers and workers must address the inequities and obstacles that persist and inhibit workers from accessing critical opportunities for career growth," added Awwad. "While there are many organizations working to upskill American professionals, providing upskilling that does not effectively address these barriers in access will negatively impact productivity, efficiency and economic growth."