Podcast: Learn In’s David Blake on Skills, Learning and What They Mean Together

Digital Learning

Transcript

Mark:

Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

Mark:

My guest today is David Blake, co-founder and co-CEO of Learn In. Its mission, they say, is to help workers navigate the skills gap by partnering with employers to identify and prepare for better fitting roles. We’re going to talk about the evolution of learning, skills, and Amelia Earhart on this addition of People Tech. Hey, David. Welcome. And can you tell me about Learn In?

David:

Yeah. So Learn In was born out of this paradox that we were seeing in the market, which is upskilling is universally ROI-positive, and yet we’re seeing companies do very little of it. So there’s new numbers out every month, but McKinsey’s numbers are there’s roughly about a hundred million Americans who have self-identified as feeling at risk of displacement in their work if they aren’t upskilled in 18 months. So that is about a third of the American workforce. And right now in America, we’re upskilling 9 million people. So we’re operating at about one tenth of the equation. And if it’s ROI-positive, if you can spend $2 and get $5 back on upskilling as a company, as an individual, you should see the market start to arbitrage that away, but we’re not. And so we really wanted to dig in and to understand what are the barriers that are keeping organizations and individuals from being able to upskill and to do so at scale. So that is the mission of the organization. We have spent some time now in the market and can talk about the solutions that we’ve built to address that need.

Mark:

Let me start, though, before we get to that is I was reading about Degreed and BookClub at the same time. I’m pretty familiar with Degreed, but not BookClub. And I guess the question I’ve got for them is, what do they do? And do the three of them work together at all?

David:

Yeah. First, I’d say to know me is to know… I tell people I’m an education reformer by choice and an entrepreneur by necessity. And so the passion really is about education. And Degreed is the first company that I co-founded, and its mission, we say, is to jailbreak the college degree. By that, what was meant is, when you ask people, “Tell me about your education,” inevitably, almost certainly, they answer relative to college. “Oh, no, I graduated from SMU. I graduated in economics.” Or even, “Oh, I didn’t go to college.” You ask someone, “Tell me about your education,” that’s how that’ll answer. And that’s absurd.

David:

If I were to ask you, “Mark, tell me about your health,” and you said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I ran a marathon 22 years ago,” that is an absurd way to answer for your health. And it’s not because marathons are absurd, but that is an absurdity, and we all know it, because what you did with your health and what you did with your education 10, 15, 20 years ago is so infinitesimally informing your health or your knowledge, your education today. But we’ve been conditioned to it. And so that was Degreed’s mission. And so what we started to do was to track people’s learning, academic, professional, and informal learning, so that they could have a lifetime reflection, a real-time reflection of their education. Corporations started using it so that they could see what their people were learning and who had what skills.

David:

In many ways, Learn In is… The distinction I would give here is… I’ll use marathons again. These days, getting on YouTube, there’s some incredible resources. Get on there and watch a YouTube, a marathon training video about how to train for your marathon. But we all know that doesn’t turn you into a marathon runner. It did make you smarter. You are gaining knowledge. You are able to learn. That’s not the same thing as becoming a marathon runner. And that’s the distinction I would give between learning and skilling, is just like actually becoming a marathon runner is a much larger, longer, harder ordeal of which knowledge is a subcomponent, but so is nutrition, and so is strategy, and so is repetition, and so is just putting in the training and the hours, upskilling is a bigger, harder problem than learning. Knowledge is a subcomponent of upskilling, but World Economic Forum, their number is it takes on average 480 hours to learn a new skill, and it costs on average $24,800. It’s just a bigger, longer, harder problem. And so where Degreed was all about organizing the world’s learning resources and helping you track those, Learn In is all about helping you to upskill.

David:

And then finally, BookClub. So you can see the relation a bit, Degreed and Learn In. BookClub in many ways was born out of the desire… I care about education broadly. Both Degreed and Learn In were very career-oriented, helping people in their careers and their skills. But as our… I mean, as a country, but also broader globally, as a society, we’ve continued to devolve into increased nationalism and racism and extremism and tribalism, and I really came to want to have a positive impact on that equation. And if you step back and understand, what do all those things hold in common? Misinformation and racism and nationalism and political extremism? At some level, they all… What they all have in common is a lack of empathy and some level of ignorance. And it’s hard to legislate away ignorance. At some level, the only thing that can overcome ignorance is education.

David:

What kind of education? That’s a very different kind of education, the kind of education that can challenge someone’s worldview and can do so safely enough that they’re actually willing to consider it, they’re actually willing to change their position. How do you help someone walk a mile in someone’s shoes? That’s just a very different kind of education. And so when I started thinking about, “Well, how can I work on that kind of education?” it led me to think about, “Well, one of the best things we’ve ever invented as humans is the power of great literature and the written word and its ability to move us.” So BookClub was born to scale the power of great literature and the conversations that can be sparked by it. And so we’ve built the platform to be a platform for people to engage around great literature, to engage the author, to lead book clubs by the authors themselves in many cases, and to be able to scale those kind of worldview-challenging conversations.

Mark:

Now, there’s so much talk about skills today, and it seems to be coming from everywhere. It’s coming from analysts, executives. Skills is a crisis. What are we going to do about it? We have to offer better learning options. So how’s that all impacting you? Is it?

David:

Yeah. The half-life of skills has fallen dramatically. That’s true for now kind of all of us. It’s almost inescapable. At this point, almost inescapable. So irrespective of your profession or what your formal training was in, just the skill base required to do almost anything is diminishing, the half life of it. So yeah, it’s relevant to all of us. I think, to steal from Thomas Friedman, he makes the argument in the book. Thank You for Being Late that 2007 was the year at which the rate at which technology was scaling had outpaced the rate at which humanity could adapt. And if you take that framework, that thesis… And I will restate it slightly, which is 2007 is then roughly the year in which the rate at which technology is scaling has outpaced the rate at which humanity can learn. And that’s what’s driving this ever-widening skills gap.

David:

So there’s only one country left in the world who’s not facing a skills gap, and that’s India, because of enough of their population is still rising into the middle class and the rate of educational attainment in India. But otherwise every single country in the world has a skills gap, and it’s growing. And right now we have no expectation, zero, none, there is no expectation that it’ll ever close ever again. It’s getting bigger every day. It’s getting bigger every week. It’s getting bigger every month. It’s getting bigger every year, because those lines are diverging. The rate at which technology can scale has outpaced the rate at which humanity can learn.

David:

And so there’s good news and bad news in that environment. Last thing I’ll say. I’ll give it back to you. But in that environment, the challenge is it’s a diverging world. It’s a world in which the haves, the skilled, the educated are able to continue to… Benefits accrue. And it’s a world in which, as the skill gap gets bigger, it’s a world in which the haves, the uneducated, the unskilled have less. But the inverse of that and the good news, sort of the silver lining, is that’s a context in which the value of skills and the value of education is going up and up and up and up. And so that’s the good news, that we’re in this environment where it’s very ROI-positive to educate people. It’s very ROI-positive to skill people. And so we’ve got to mobilize to that, because to be left behind in that skills gap is of dire consequence. And that’s true of an individual. That’s true of a company. That’s true of a country. If you start to fall behind in this skills gap, it’s of dire consequence.

Mark:

So when you’re building these products, who are you thinking of? Are you thinking of the end user? Are you thinking about someone who’s up the totem pole a bit from them?

David:

Yeah, really build for the person, the human, the learner. Learn In’s logo is a propeller of an airplane, and that’s an ode to Amelia Earhart, who’s kind of our company’s hero. As you think about the skills gap, it’s a great chasm. Who has crossed gate great chasms in history? And we chose Amelia Earhart as kind of our inspiration. She has a quote that I love, which was, “My flying was always solo, but the preparation for it wasn’t.” And there’s kind of a truth to that, which is education is kind of a team sport, but the journey to actually make it on the journey is you. You’ve got to go on that journey. So you really have to meet… The product has to meet the individual, and it has to work at the individual level to sustain someone. To go back to that stat, 480 hours is the average time it takes to develop a new skill. And so that’s really, I think, where success is found, how you make a great product, is to build for the person who’s going to spend the dozens if not hundreds of hours in it.

Mark:

We talked about skills and what it’s doing in the world. Let me ask about COVID. That’s beat up the economy some. It’s changed a lot of corporate thinking, as it were. First, what have you seen out there? How it’s impacting learning and attitudes toward learning is the first question.

David:

Yeah. I think a lot of interesting ways. It did bring some kind of leverage back to the individual, to the employee, which I think is probably in the rebalancing very important. One of the things, though, that we’ve seen is we’re in this… The macroeconomic environment even, as it is inflationary and potentially recessionary, we’re in a very tight labor market, and a tight labor market actually contributes to inflation. And what that has contributed to… And behind that, the skills gap is growing.

David:

And so what we’re seeing is the tolerance for training people is going up. It used to be always just so hard. In the decision between, “I can hire someone and have them here six weeks from now, or I can train someone and they’ll be ready for the new role nine months from now,” companies just always were addicted to the immediacy of hiring and often very unwilling to have the discipline of actually upskilling. And we’re finally starting to see that shift a bit with the labor market being as it is, just so tight. There’s just not enough people. And we see it everywhere, from going out to get lunch or get a coffee, all the way up to the top of every industry. So I think that’s… Over the long arc, I’m very encouraged by that. Companies are starting to take more seriously and earnestly the work of investing over a long arc in someone’s development and doing internal mobility versus just always hiring.

Mark:

So it sounds like when companies are talking about skills and the importance of that whole situation, it sounds like you think they mean it.

David:

Yeah. Increasingly, I actually do. Encouraged that way.

Mark:

David, thank you very much.

David:

Okay. Well, I appreciate your time and the thoughtful questions. And if anything else comes up, feel free to reach out by email, and be quick to respond.

Mark:

My guest today has been David Blake, co-founder and co-CEO of Learn In. And this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of Recruiting Daily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs, visit www.evergreenpodcasts.com. And to keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

Image: 123RF

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