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The Skills Revolution: Connecting Learning and Work

Nov 5, 2021

By Wesley Smith, Senior Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs


In 2014, I had my first professional experience engaging with the National Governors Association (NGA), serving as a connection point between the NGA and the State of Utah as I was representing the state and former Utah Governor Gary Herbert in Washington, D.C. Governor Herbert had a leadership role in the NGA and part of my responsibility in representing Governor Herbert was to work with governors throughout the nation to develop policy at the state and national levels that best served states. Fast forward seven years and I am excited to again be collaborating with the NGA on behalf of Western Governors University (WGU), the nation’s largest online, nonprofit, competency-based university, founded 24 years ago by 19 governors. 

 WGU and the NGA recently announced a partnership to focus on the future of education and work. Throughout the partnership, we will combine forces to deliver best practices in state policy that will help individuals from rural and urban communities alike, in all 50 states across our country, not only to access affordable higher education in a way that fits their lives but also to discover how to succeed in education and work in our digital world. The partnership will focus on four initiatives to address and overcome the prevalent workforce and education issues states are facing, especially as states grapple with how to equitably rebuild their economies coming out of the pandemic. 

WGU was honored to host the NGA’s State Strategies for Skills and Lifelong Learning Systems conference last week, which advanced our partnership’s first major initiative to create and advance a skills ecosystem. As WGU’s Provost Marni Baker Stein kicked off the conference she reflected on the rail system in America a century ago. It was a system that was uncoordinated with over 1,000 operating companies and tracks that didn’t connect. This made it difficult for Americans seeking to travel to areas of opportunity, many of whom were stranded along the way. Bringing these systems together and creating seamless pathways was a seminal advancement for America. We have the same opportunity today in learning to work pathways. By creating a skills ecosystem across our country, we can ensure no one gets stranded along the way throughout their education and careers.  

This conference brought together state policymakers, philanthropy, business leaders, and higher education institutions in a cross-sector conversation on the future of state systems of lifelong learning. The conversations focused on the ongoing work to improve our education and work infrastructure, ensuring that the tracks connect so that all Americans can equitably reach the opportunity to improve their lives through life-long learning that leads to sustainable and thriving careers.   

Changing traditional systems and ways of thinking is a complex endeavor. Our current system of higher education was designed for a bygone era and is not leading to economic mobility for the vast majority. While it served many Americans and led to economic mobility for a portion of the population, we must do better. We have seen the national federal student loan debt at graduation increase by 76% since the year 2000. 36 million Americans have some college and no degree. And we’ve learned over and over how our minority populations have been disproportionally affected by the impacts of the pandemic, including reduced enrollment in postsecondary education. Our future can and must include a "rail system" that connects individuals with education and workforce opportunities. 

It was evident at the NGA’s State Strategies for Skills and Lifelong Learning Systems conference that the amount of work necessary to create this connected infrastructure is daunting. We now have the opportunity and responsibility to connect with each other across industries and organizations, across postsecondary institutions, across state lines, to grow budding coalitions that are advancing skills work, to share best practices in state policy, and to connect every individual with the tools and knowledge to be successful on their own terms.   

There are many ways to get involved in the skills revolution and I encourage you, regardless of where you sit on the train, to learn more about the opportunities that are happening right now. If you’re interested in the progress that exists, check out the recordings from the conference and connect with the speakers. If you’re already working to build out skills libraries in education or at an organization, check out the Open Skills Management Tool, built by WGU, and advancing the vision of the Open Skills Network. If you’re interested in best practices and policy, check out the NGA’s Center for Best Practices and stay tuned for more as we continue our partnership throughout the year.  

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