Barriers and Opportunities for Upskilling a Future-Ready Workforce

In today’s marketplace, macroeconomic shifts and technological advances are coming faster than ever, with some jobs becoming obsolete and others demanding new skills. To support professional development, meet business needs, and drive economic growth and national competitiveness, it is vital to continuously develop and advance workers’ skills – a process known as upskilling. Upskilling is not occurring at a rate that keeps pace with the evolving labor economy. In response, DeVry University wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the state of upskilling in the U.S. and determine what barriers exist for ongoing professional development.

DeVry University, in partnership with research firm Reputation Leaders, conducted a survey of American workers and employers on their interest in and access to upskilling. The survey, titled Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce, uncovered alarming barriers to skills development opportunities for women and people of color that corporate America must work to address. Simultaneously, the survey indicates that American employees are experiencing a newly obvious ‘say/do gap’—saying ongoing skills development is essential to their careers but not actually participating in it due to an array of structural barriers.

Employers and workers are up against a major say/do gap

According to the report, eight in 10 employers surveyed say they offer company-paid upskilling benefits. However, on average, they estimate that only half (51%) of their workers use these benefits. This could be due in part to certain barriers faced by workers. Approximately 4 in 5 employee respondents claim they face personal barriers to upskilling – such as not having enough time in the day, family and other priorities taking precedence, and the job skills they want are different from their employer’s priorities.  But employers believe workers are simply not prioritizing learning or that workers are "too lazy” to upskill, signaling that they are potentially overlooking the barriers their talent may be facing in pursuing upskilling opportunities.

Persistent biases create disadvantages for certain groups—hindering career advancement

The survey revealed that there are significant barriers to skills development for two important talent demographics – women and people of color – negatively impacting these groups when it comes to job satisfaction, retention and advancement.

Men are much more likely to report having access to upskilling (73%) than women (56%). This lack of access leaves women at risk of leaving their current employer at twice the rate of men, with 28% reporting they feel stuck in their positions and less able to advance in their careers. On top of that, women cite a lack of time and family priorities as barriers to learning.

The survey also found that people of color indicate bias limits their access to skills development, with 37% of Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and AAPI workers citing workplace bias and discrimination as barriers to their own skills development goals. Additionally, Black or African American (80%) and Hispanic or Latino (71%) workers currently not receiving company-paid upskilling benefits would be more likely than white workers (62%) to use them. This demonstrates an appetite for workplace learning and training that is inhibited by a lack of access.

If upskilling is fundamental to job satisfaction, career advancement, and staying competitive, these gaps in access can have detrimental effects on workplace diversity and innovation, both of which are paramount for organizations looking to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace.

Working professionals and employers think and talk differently about skills development, but there is still common ground

Additional barriers can be found in a growing disconnect between employers and workers and how they think and talk about their skills priorities. Twenty-two percent of workers say they value a business degree (hard skills) while 57% of employers say they value leadership (soft) skills. But hard and soft skills are not mutually exclusive. More often than not, there are overlaps between more concrete and less tangible skills that are not being seen by employers and workers. For example, the skills required for an advanced business degree desired by workers and the leadership and management skills desired by employers might meet similar needs as most advanced business degrees likely include leadership and management courses.

Upskilling is universally acknowledged as a priority, but employers and employees can be doing more to meet expectations

Training and education help workers meet more advanced demands of future jobs and helps organizations thrive economically. But despite 97% of workers and 96% of employers saying upskilling is essential or nice to have, only about one in three workers think employers are living up to their responsibility to upskill American workers for the future. Meanwhile, 67% of workers say they would prefer to receive a formal degree, certificate, or certification as an outcome of upskilling, whereas 56% of workers say they prefer bite-sized, quick ways to upskill. This clarifies that workers deeply value traditional credentials, but these credentials need to be delivered in new ways to keep pace with change.

There are actionable steps to create more upskilling opportunities

There are a multitude of complex factors altering American work environments and driving demand for new skills. To equitably address the say/do gap, workers and employers must take action to meet career demands and ensure access to upskilling opportunities. Employers can incorporate skills development as part of their organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals, create a program in areas of shared importance, and educate workers on the gaps between what they need and what they personally value. For workers, the next step could be exploring bite-sized learning opportunities that offer more flexibility or collaborating with their managers to understand what skills are required for their future career advancement.

DeVry University offers upskilling opportunities through its academic programs and through DeVryWorks, the university's workforce solutions division that combines worker and employer needs to identify, tailor and deliver flexible professional learning solutions.

To read the full Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce report, click here.

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About DeVry University 

DeVry University strives to close society’s opportunity gap and address emerging talent needs by preparing learners to thrive in careers shaped by continuous technological change. Founded in 1931, the university offers undergraduate and graduate programs onsite and online in Business, Healthcare and Technology. DeVry University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (HLC, The university’s Keller Graduate School of Management is included in this accreditation. To learn more, visit