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A Working Learner Is a Modern Learner

Monday, November 7, 2016
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A recent study by the ACT Foundation uncovered a rise in the number of working learners: “Individuals who work for pay and learn toward a credentialing at the same time.” This education can take the form of formal training or personal skill development. 

Individuals pursuing education while working may do so to: 

  • gain financial support for living and school expenses 
  • learn or maintain new skills and experience 
  • build or maintain professional networks 
  • reinforce classroom training. 
    Many people are active working learners the ACT foundation found. Nearly 50 percent of high school students work outside school for pay. At the undergraduate level, that increases to 85 percent for those who are enrolled full time, and about a third of those aged 30 and older are working learners. 

Changing Learning Needs 

Per the ACT foundation, “only 52.9 percent of students who started at two and four year institutions in fall of 2009 had graduated at the end of a six-year period.” Why? Our working learners place more value on learning the right thing at the right time as opposed to taking in all the content at once—whether or not it is relevant to their current profession. 

But what’s causing this change? The learning economy and global performance is changing. Numerous work efficiency tools have made it easier to connect, enabling people to change how, when, and with whom we work. When the forces of constant connectivity are combines with rapidly changing technologies, it creates an environment where people need to be increasingly productive, literate, and learning-oriented to keep pace with the ever-evolving marketplace. This quickened pace doesn’t leave time for weeklong learning sessions; people need to learn it now to stay relevant. 

This rise in working learners also correlates to the rise of freelancing and the gig economy. In fact, according to the ACT Foundation study, there are more than 53 million people freelancing today. These freelancers are using it as a career path to develop the skills they need, while also building their client base. Of these people, 38 percent are Millennials, many of whom see freelancing as a career path rather than a stepping stone to a salaried career.  

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What Does This Mean for Organizations?  

As companies continue to attract and retain younger generations, they could benefit from the freelancing ideals. The ACT foundation has identified three key barriers to meeting the needs of working learners: 

  1. Uniformity in hiring: Companies are hiring people using old hiring standards and failing to adapt the position to the actual need. 
  2. Educational attainment: Firms continue to hire based on educational attainment despite the changes occurring in the education economy. 
  3. Working learner inclusion: Companies often promote and pay more attention to employees who have put in more time, ignoring younger workers. 
    While not everyone in your organization is pursuing a formal degree, people are learning. A simple way for companies to adapt to these new learner needs is by modernizing their learning programs. Today’s learners look very different than they did even a decade ago, yet many employee development programs still rely on old methodologies. Those who work in a modern learning organization will optimize learning methods and integrate new and old learning solutions. More importantly, they will close skills gaps faster. 

How Do I Modernize? 

To get you started, ATD has partnered with two subject matter experts to create LearnNow: The Modern Learner. During the course, you will work to modernize a short course from your workplace, design a learning cluster to meet a specific need, and revamp your learning and development measures. 

Bottom line: We are in an age when working and learning will occur on a continuum, and organizations that fail to keep up with the times will find themselves left behind. 

Interested in learning more about how to make the shift to a modern L&D organization? Join us for the LearnNow: Designing for the Modern Learner workshop.

About the Author

Clara Von Ins is the Human Capital Specialist at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Prior to working for ATD, Clara worked for the American Red Cross as the disaster program coordinator in Santa Barbara, California.


Clara received an bachelor’s degree from the Ohio State University in psychology and education. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill remotely to obtain a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on nonprofit management and community and economic development. 


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