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The Half-Life of Your Skills is Shrinking — Here’s What You Can Do About It

The Half-Life of Your Skills is Shrinking — Here’s What You Can Do About It

In today’s innovation-first landscape, learning can never stop.

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If you think the pace of innovation is overwhelming your lifestyle or your tech gadget budget, think about what it’s doing to your skillset.

Right now, estimates put the half-life of a professional skill at just five years — in five years that valuable skill you gained in school or in the workplace is half as valuable as it was when you acquired it. By 2020, more than one-third of the skills we need, regardless of industry, will have changed.

To keep pace with the heightened demands of today’s and tomorrow’s job markets, we need to commit to learning, growing, and continuously honing our skills. We need to commit to lifelong learning.

Many millennials and Gen Zers that are in or just entering the workforce are already embracing this notion of lifelong learning and professional evolution. Nearly half of the millennial workforce, for example, are freelancers, a setup that demands a heightened level of flexibility in how they work, how they learn, and how they respond to changes in the market. To ensure they’re in-step with emerging employer demands, more than 55 percent of these freelancers say they’ve reskilled in the last six months, versus just 30 percent of other workers.

Professional evolution through lifelong learning

It’s not just the “gig” economy — the economy of freelance, temporary, and project-based work that’s driving the marketplace toward this lifelong learning trend.

“The higher education space is changing quite dramatically right now,” says Alex Gay, director of product marketing for educational institutions at Adobe. “The average age of students is increasing and, more often than not, students are balancing studies with work as the cost of education increases.”

To keep pace with the technology and innovation required for many industries and roles, workers need to stay on top of the trends, the shifts, and the fast-emerging demands in the marketplace. They need to keep learning.

“What we’re finding more and more is that students are looking ahead to the value of what they’re learning as it applies to their future careers,” Alex says. “So the connectivity between what a student learns in higher education and what they need in the workplace just becomes increasingly important.”

Keeping pace with the new marketplace

As these demands and skillsets shift, both individuals and organizations are re-examining education and lifelong skills development. Community colleges, for example, are increasingly working with tech- and innovation-focused industries to provide ongoing learning and skills trainings.

In support of this work, Adobe’s University Outreach Program makes leading-edge tools and software available to schools and students, exposing learners of all ages and backgrounds to the latest technology that they can apply to their careers.

“By becoming well-versed in these industry-standard software programs,” says Lynne Kurylo, chair of liberal studies at George Brown College’s School of Continuing Education, “our students will enjoy a competitive advantage in the workforce.”

Micro credentials and nanodegrees from online courses

Similar partnerships are also happening online, with many major enterprises tapping massive open online course (MOOC) providers, like Coursera and Instructure, to give learners access to coursework on demand. These virtual courses are short, broad-ranging, and offer branded content at a lower out-of-pocket cost than traditional in-class work, while still offering the targeted skills and training required. For employers and workers, it’s a win-win.

“People who have come into the market don’t want to go back to school,” says Justin Mass, head of digital learning innovation on Adobe’s global talent development team. “They’re working professionals. Maybe they have family or other obligations. But they do want to get this feedback and upskill in these areas.”

As a result, Justin adds, we’re seeing a new type of educational framework. “We’re seeing an emergence of the micro-credential. It’s this ‘nanodegree’ or smaller certificate. But it’s university-based so it has the prestige of Harvard or MIT or Carnegie Mellon, but it’s more of an advanced certificate.”

It’s something that technology entrepreneur Tom Siebel has looked to integrate fully in his latest startup C3 IoT. The company is willing to pay employees $1,000 or more for each MOOC they complete in areas such as deep learning and natural language processing.

“In order for us to stay ahead of this, when we interview people we tend to self-select for people who are well educated and who are challenged by interesting problems,” Tom says. “People who have a book in their hand.

“We like to think of our people as self-learners. This is an important part of our core values — to be inquisitive and always learning.”

Not only are MOOCs and other online courses ideal from a cost and time perspective but, for younger “digital natives” in the workforce, these platforms effectively engage their innate learning style. These are students and early career professionals who see learning as something that can and should happen anywhere, anytime, and anyplace, so the flexibility offered by digital platforms is hugely appealing.

Face-to-face learning, bootcamp style

That’s not to say that physical learning opportunities don’t have their place in this new world order. Bootcamps covering a variety of topics are often hosted in a location near you, helping thousands of participants get an experiential learning deep dive.

Adobe recently hosted a General Assembly bootcamp with an eye on providing participants an intense introduction to topics such as UX design. These one-day sessions provided participants with meaningful hands-on experience paired with an opportunity to network with peers and industry leaders. The events are extremely popular among a diverse audience and, in particular, among students and professionals aiming to bridge disciplines and gain increased career flexibility.

“They’re coming to the workforce and recognizing what they’re lacking,” says Bianca Espinoza, regional admissions director for General Assembly. “These immersion courses are great for scaling them up with the more up-to-date skills,” she says which, increasingly, is essential for success in an innovation-heavy environment.

“In technology,” Bianca says, “things are moving really quickly, so we’re giving them a portfolio of work that shows these skills, but also provides them with a professional background so they can jump into new roles and collaborate with others effectively.”

It’s also a common experience in creative fields where, more and more, students and industry professionals are being pushed to hone their skills and dig into new ones.

“I see a lot of experimentation from people in one field of graphic design going more into UX design lately,” Adobe Senior Community Manager Liz Schmidt says. “It’s something that they stayed away from because they probably weren’t developers or front-end designers and had a fear of getting into a field that really revolved around that.”

It’s an exciting shift, and it’s opening countless doors for lifelong learners. “We’re seeing our students come in and say, ‘I really want to show the world what I can do,’ and with training on new products they’re able to do that very quickly,” she says. “They can learn skills in a few hours — it’s very intuitive for them. That’s inspiring a lot of people to jump into something new.”

Challenging your peers — and your mind

As a student of data science, Bryant Baird supplemented his formal education with an opportunity to see how he measured up.

As a participant in, and 2016 winner of, the Adobe Analytics Challenge, he and about 1,500 other contestants from across the United States received access to industry-leading analytics products, real-world data, and live training as they competed to provide a solution to an analysis project.

Teams analyzed a company’s data and then presented their findings and recommendations to experienced analytics consultants for a chance at $60,000 in prizes. In addition to specific industry skills, Bryant also learned a few soft skills.

“Whatever the company, career, or role, whether inside or outside of the work environment, the ability to present yourself and your thoughts is a crucial skill,” says Bryant. “There are many others who are more outspoken than I am, but competing helped me learn that I have a voice too, and it’s just as important as anybody else’s, even if it’s not as loud or doesn’t have as large a sphere of influence as others.”

Networking for learning

Since the earliest online bulletin boards, communities of professionals have gathered to share their own skills with specific technology and glean tips from those with more knowledge than themselves. These have evolved into professional learning networks (PLNs), such as the Adobe Education Exchange, which allow people to share knowledge and expertise with their peers, as well as access lesson plans, workshops, and a whole host of other learning resources.

PLNs provide a variety of content — some user-generated, some from professional associations, and still more from specific vendors. For example, Adobe recently introduced Experience League — an online community of experts and peers, with guided learning modules to support businesses as they transition their organizations to focus on experiences.

But, like other learning opportunities, it doesn’t all have to be online. In-person conferences infuse energy and enthusiasm into the work and tools while sharing a vision of why different skills are important and the impact they can make. Adobe MAX, THE creativity conference, and Summit, Adobe’s digital experience event, both offer hands-on learning labs, live networking, and a chance to re-evaluate where you want your career to go and the skills you’ll need to get there.

A commitment to learning drives greater innovation and personal satisfaction

If the trend toward more flexible, forward-thinking work environments continues, it seems inevitable that we will enter a multistage life that will be characterized by breaks and transitions in skills across one or several careers — another critical reason companies and individuals need to commit to lifelong learning. If our collective workforce can learn how to adapt skills, expand horizons, and keep evolving as learners and leaders, then this commitment can drive even greater innovation, as well as personal satisfaction and professional growth.

“We are really excited about this learning model,” says Tom Ogletree, director of social impact at General Assembly, “and how it can get more people who may not have had a lot of access and opportunity, but are super-motivated and super-passionate about pursuing careers in tech, to be able to access careers in the digital economy.”

Beyond the opportunity, though, there’s also a professional and social imperative to a lifelong learning model. Technology continues to evolve in ways no one can fully predict. As a result, it’s not uncommon for lessons and skills that students gained in a traditional four-year program to be obsolete by the time they graduate — again, it’s the continuously shrinking shelf life of our professional skillsets.

“The world of work is changing,” says Alex. “But that’s nothing new — it’s been changing all along. However, it’s far more poignant now, with the increase in technology, and how that technology plays within our day-to-day activities.”

Students shouldn’t view their traditional education experiences as wasted, though. Instead, they should see this constant evolution as a tremendous, ongoing opportunity.

“This isn’t something students should be afraid of,” Alex explains, “but rather excited about it. They’re going to be able to be a part of this ever-changing landscape and, more importantly, influence it.” All it takes is a commitment to learning, growing, and honing their skills to keep pace.

“The best advice I can give to a student is to develop your critical thinking, communication, and creative problem-solving skills,” Alex says. “That’s what the businesses of tomorrow want — problem solvers. Combining those with a desire for lifelong learning, will make you better prepared for what comes next.”

Read more about education and innovation in our Back to School collection.

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