ATD Blog

7 Takeaways for Senior Talent Leaders from the White House Upskill Summit

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


In late April, nearly 200 employers, labor leaders, foundations, nonprofits, educators, workforce leaders, and technologists came together at the White House Upskill Summit, dedicated to helping develop and promote frontline employees.  

College for America (CfA) and its partner Anthem were invited to kick off the day with a case study about their work together, and how degree programs helped to upskill Anthem’s call center and service operations staff.  As representatives for CfA , we also shared research regarding how employers and frontline employees think differently about higher education for working adults. 

While we were excited to share our own experiences, the best part of the day was hearing other stories and learning about how other organizations are helping working adults advance their careers and lives.  Here are seven key ideas we took from the summit. 

  1. Stakeholders are diverse and bipartisan. The initiative to help U.S. workers achieve a better life through hard work is as American as apple pie and supported by a broad range of organizations. People of all political stripes were at the summit, and representatives from the past several administrations were present. Vice President Joe Biden delivered closing remarks at this event, and just a few months earlier, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a similar summit on Managing the Talent Pipeline. Joe Biden and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are often on opposing sides of many issues, but there’s an urgency and enthusiasm that truly is bridging party lines here.


  1. Employers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Tremendous thought and energy went into organizing this summit and the materials that would come out of it, including an employer handbook, co-authored by Deloitte Consulting and the Aspen Institute, which is chock-full of actionable ideas and case studies on upskilling the workforce. Additionally, the White House produced a report including substantial data and promising practices. These are incredible resources to tap into so no organization needs to start their own upskilling initiative from scratch.


  1. Big players (employers) are getting more seriously involved. The assemblage was formidable and full of incredible programs and leaders, such as IBM, Capital One, and Pepsico, to name a few. These are the leaders—collectively responsible for more than 5 million employees—who really do have the potential to change upskilling practices for the better.


  1. Competencies are the key to aligning business, workforce development, and education. In breakout discussions that touched on apprenticeships, on-the-job training, higher education, even K-12 schooling, competencies continually came up as a key to aligning education and workforce development with business needs. CfA partner Anthem, which is preparing for a major announcement regarding higher education for its employees, is starting to see the benefits of investing in competency-based associate’s degrees for its frontline workers.


  1. There is increased need to upskill as the labor market tightens. We already know from College for America’s workforce strategy research that 71 percent of employers would rather promote from within rather than hire from the outside. That was when unemployment was at 6.7 percent; now it is 5.5 percent. Over and over we heard from employers at the summit that promoting today’s employees is vastly preferred to onboarding new talent.


  1. Employers who don’t focus on employee development and education will struggle to compete. Today’s employers have access, resources, and support to truly make workforce development work for their organizations—and companies are starting to understand that it is in their best interest to prioritize workforce development alongside profit centers. For example, PepsiCo has increased its tuition reimbursement from 75 percent to 100 percent to make the higher education benefit more appealing to more workers. Its leaders know there will be more competition to attract and retain talent. Our partnership with Partners HealthCare makes it possible for frontline nonclinical staff to pursue accredited degrees for minimal out-of-pocket tuition.


  1. Effective upskilling requires the blend of new technologies and human relationships. Many of the solutions discussed at the summit (including our competency-based associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs at College for America) only are possible with new data mining tools and learning technology. But every case study and story shared was more about people than technology.   

Wrapping up the day, Vice President Joe Biden told the story of Mike Johnson, who joined UPS 40 years ago as a part-time package handler and now is responsible for 400,000 employees nationwide. We need more stories like his, and CfA is excited to be partnering with employers nationwide to make it happen. Indeed, the main takeaway was that employers displayed genuine excitement and camaraderie tackling the upskilling challenge. Without question, there was a sincere excitement about and shared purpose in helping frontline workers get ahead—and doing it together. 

About the Author

Julian L. Alssid, Chief Workforce Strategist at College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, is a nationally recognized expert in workforce development innovation and policy. He has over 20 years of experience working with decision makers who seek to grow the economy and create a pipeline of skilled talent. Prior to joining College for America, Julian founded the Workforce Strategy Center, where he advised over 20 states on workforce policy and established himself as a leader in promoting effective, practical solutions for implementing career pathways initiatives. Julian has also held senior positions in education and workforce development at the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce (now the Partnership for New York City), LaGuardia Community College, and the Office of the Mayor of New York City.

About the Author

Colin Van Ostern is chief marketing officer for College for America. He has led business, marketing, and communications strategies for commercial and nonprofit organizations ranging from Stonyfield Yogurt to Dartmouth College.  He has a particular passion for finding market-driven solutions to pressing social challenges, and currently serves as an Executive Council for the State of New Hampshire.  Colin holds a BA from The George Washington University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

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