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ATD Blog

L&D Pros Need Lifelong Learning, Too

Thursday, July 5, 2018

More than half of market-leading organizations (55 percent) make it a high priority to build a workforce of lifelong learners. That’s according to data from a new ATD Research report, Lifelong Learning: The Path to Personal and Organizational Performance, to be released next month. One in four learning leaders (26 percent) say that a majority of their employees are lifelong learners, and half say that most of their leaders are. What’s more, nearly 60 percent of high-performing organizations actively encourage their employees to be lifelong learners.

The New Workplace Needs New Skills

Those numbers should come as no surprise. “Entire occupations and industries are expanding and contracting at an alarming pace, and the skills needed to keep up in almost any job are churning at a faster rate,” explain Jeffrey J. Selingo and Kevin Simon in a Forbes article. Jeff Selingo is author of There Is Life After College: What Students and Parents Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, and Kevin Simon is with LinkedIn Learning.

Advances in technology, shifting demographics, expanding global markets, and updates to compliance regulations are just a few factors reshaping the workforce, not to mention the speed at which these changes are taking place. Consequently, a Pew Research Center survey, “The State of American Jobs,” found that 87 percent of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.

Amid this backdrop, Selingo and Simon say that a growing number of individuals are seeking out less expensive and easily accessible pathways to skills acquisition. “Rather than a higher education system that requires prospective students enroll in full-time programs to earn a degree, workers are demanding ‘plug and play’ platforms that enable access to smaller bites of just-in-time education throughout their careers,” they write.

A New Ecosystem of Lifelong Learning

Pew Research Center and Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center recently asked technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and education leaders to weigh in on a future of workplace training—including the demand and supply of lifelong learning opportunities. According to the Pew report, The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training , thought leaders expect to see a more diverse education and credentialing ecosystem.

A considerable number of respondents to the canvassing “focused on the likelihood that the best education programs will teach people how to be lifelong learners,” and many foresee a significant number of “self-teaching efforts by jobholders themselves as they take advantage of proliferating online opportunities.” Accordingly, some experts in the Pew study predict that “alternative credentialing mechanisms will arise to assess and vouch for the skills people acquire.”

This new learning ecosystem will likely take the form of stackable credentials like digital badges, certificates, and more formal certifications. Charlie Firestone, communications and society program executive director and vice president at The Aspen Institute, told Pew that there will be “a move toward more precise and better credentialing for skills and competencies, for example, badging and similar techniques.”

But this new ecosystem can be confusing, with many professionals asking critical questions: “What’s the difference between badges, certificates, and certifications?“ and “Which one do I really need?”

First, digital badges often reflect that a learner has demonstrated mastery of specific, granular skills that are required to adequately fulfill job performance. Some examples may be new compliance regulations in the finance industry, changing safety directives for handling hazardous waste, or updated security and privacy protocols for handling patient information in healthcare.


Sue Kaiden, project manager of credentialing for the Association for Talent Development, offers some explanation on understanding the differences between certificates and certifications. She notes that certificates are typically awarded based on completion of training on specific subject matter. They do not, however, always assess how well you learned or can apply that material. There are some exceptions, though, such as ATD’s Masters Trainer Certificate, which does have an assessment component. Once you have completed a certificate program, you can say “I have a certificate in [subject matter] from [organization that provided training].”

Sam Punnett, research officer at TableRock Media, told Pew that certificates are being viewed more favorably in the workplace. “I suspect employers will recognize the new credentialing systems. Particularly those certificates awarded for studies in emerging disciplines and those that reflect an upgrade of previously acquired skills,” he asserts.

Meanwhile, Kaiden explains that certifications involve a testing process developed by an independent certifying body that covers the competencies required to excel in a specific job or field. If you pass the exam, you have the right to say, “I am a certified [fill in the blank],” which allows you to display letters after your name that attest to your competence. Think certified public accountants (CPAs) or ATD’s Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLPs).

“The certifying body is, in effect, giving you a stamp of approval. Since they are staking their reputation on you, they want to be sure you know what you’re doing,” says Kaiden. “As a result, the certification process is typically rigorous and involves a recertification process to ensure that you are maintaining your skills over time.”

Following Your Own Path to Lifelong Learning

Clearly, lifelong learning is gaining momentum. This begs the question: As L&D leaders—who advocate, develop, and deliver continuous professional development opportunities for the employees inside our organizations—shouldn’t we also pursue lifelong learning for ourselves?

No doubt, your answer is a resounding yes! Most likely, though, this thought is followed quickly with a litany of reasons why it’s nearly impossible. The good news is that you’re not alone. Better yet, the availability of lifelong learning options continues to grow.


John Coleman, coauthor of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, states in the Harvard Business Review article, “Learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning.”

So what does this look like in practical terms?

Let’s say your day-to-day focus is on designing quality training programs for various delivery types (online, blended, and in-person). ATD’s Designing Learning Certificate is a good place to start. But maybe you want to delve deeper into how to capitalize on the use of technology to drive efficiencies. With this new mission, the E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate can be a helpful guide for navigating this new path. As your e-learning offerings—and design confidence—grow, it may be a good idea to extend your skills with something like Essentials of Graphics for Learning.

Then, if your company is like most, it will want to make some changes to its delivery options. You feel like you’re starting all over and wonder what your first step may be. Enter one of ATD’s new self-paced programs like Adult Learning: Selecting Learning Technologies.

But the innovation—and learning—never ends. Perhaps an internal client has been reading about microlearning and wants you to deliver something with this model. To get started down this avenue, you may read some articles, and then progress your knowledge journey by attending a webcast. When you’re ready to actually start designing some deliverables…you guessed it, there’s a course for that, too: ATD Microlearning Certificate.

Similar learning paths can be forged as your responsibilities and professional development needs change. Check out the ATD Learning Roadmap to get a customized route to lifelong learning for you. Each map depends on your role, area of expertise, and interest in specialized topics.

Bottom line, according to Selingo and Simon, is that lifelong learning “is no longer a nice to have, but a need to have for employees and employers to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving world of work.” Indeed, as industry pioneer Elaine Biech recently said, “No matter what you do, there is always more to learn.” This is as true for talent development professionals as any other industry.

Fortunately, Biech notes that ATD has opened the door to relevant content and put it at her fingertips in the form of TD articles, books, industry research, webcasts, and formal educational offerings. “I can tap into any of these treasures whenever I need them,” she says. You also can tap ATD Education’s lifelong learning opportunities to advance your knowledge—and your career.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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