Workforce Development: An Opportunity to Ignite the Shift to Learner-Centered Education

Note from Education Reimagined   24 May 2023
By Kelly Young, Education Reimagined


As the business world calls for education change with greater urgency, and as legislators in our states respond, we, as a field, have an incredible opportunity to show how learner-centered education meets the needs of the moment.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

The promise of our work is joyful learning that enables young people to build secure and fulfilling lives of their own choosing, and to discover purposeful ways to contribute their talents and gifts to their communities. Security is pivotal to that statement. Pursuing one’s purpose, contributing to one’s community, and finding fulfillment cannot happen without a family-sustaining livelihood. This includes secure jobs, financial stability, and the skills and know-how to compete, collaborate, and grow in an increasingly global economy and world. 

The good news, today, is that there are jobs employers are eager to fill—9.6 million, according to the latest jobs report. And the economic need for talent and new skills is growing exponentially. 

Just last year, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act marked a moment of new significant opportunity. At its core, this legislation aims to address both infrastructure demands and the climate crisis through massive investment in clean energy innovation, intentional workforce development, and career pathways initiatives, including registered apprenticeships. It’s a game-changer for our climate, our economy, and our young people. 

As the business world calls for education change with greater urgency, and as legislators in our states respond, we, as a field, have an incredible opportunity to show how learner-centered education meets the needs of the moment.

Crescendoing Skills Mismatch

There is a decisive, clear mismatch between what employers need and how conventional K–12 schools prepare students. It has been growing for years. In 2021, McKinsey reported that 87 percent of companies recognized they were facing a skills gap and projected it only to get worse. Now, with this injection of meaningful job creation and the adoption of artificial intelligence at lightning speed (thereby increasing the need for more highly skilled employees), that mismatch is crescendoing. 

More than ever, our economy needs the fuel of a workforce that is ready to be agile. A workforce that is ready to solve puzzles, communicate with power, creatively devise solutions to challenges, and unpack opportunities to meet market needs. We need a workforce that is ready to contribute as self-motivated leaders within teams. 

Yet, the measures of success within the conventional system seem arbitrary against these sweeping readiness needs for talent. Metrics in K–12 education and higher education are self-referential—if you get a good score on an otherwise meaningless test, you increase your chance to get into college. 

This is an opportunity to light a fire for shifting to learner-centered education. Policymakers have been asking: “How can we more directly align K–12 education with workforce and economic development?” The question I’ve been pondering is: “How can a learner-centered system demonstrate real-world outcomes that correlate to real-world success?”


The question I’ve been pondering is: “How can a learner-centered system demonstrate real-world outcomes that correlate to real-world success?”

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

In recent weeks, I have sought to understand more deeply the perspective of business leaders, as well as talent and workforce development experts. So my team and I have immersed ourselves in several career pathways discussions, including this week’s Association for Talent Development conference, ASU+GSV, and the National Pathways Summit in Washington, DC.

Some takeaways:

  • As economic opportunities and threats become more tangible, states are aligning education policies and programs with workforce needs. One really powerful example is in Ohio. In a $500 million effort to increase the state’s technology competitiveness, leaders are addressing the urgency of achieving equitable, universal broadband access and a mature 5G network. A substantial part of this is the development of K–12 and postsecondary programming to increase awareness about broadband careers, with the development of career pathway initiatives. 
  • Most conventional districts are not structured to meet new requirements or access incentives. This is adding another layer of responsibility to districts as they struggle for success within the current paradigm of education. Districts must access new sets of resources to seize opportunities or ensure compliance. Once again, we are requiring wholesale change within a system that itself is not agile enough to take on the challenge. The ongoing problem is trying to patch a system, rather than inventing a new system designed to be agile and adaptive.
  • While many of these programs and initiatives will give students access to specific technical skill-building experiences, the core of what corporate leaders truly seek are durable skills. I fear the mismatch may be perpetuated with a strict, narrow focus on career and technical education. Technical skills are necessary for many jobs, but not at the expense of the durable skills that allow a young person to be a life-long learner, who can pivot, add value, and work well with teams. 

The Learner-Centered Opportunity

Chief Learning Officers talk about building a culture of learning and cite very direct benefits of such cultures to enhance productivity and enable growth. Companies yearn for self-starting, motivated, and curious employees, ready to take on challenges and solve problems. They embrace failing forward as a key to innovation. They imagine ways to manage and develop talent, and reward employees, based on skills and knowledge acquired, versus tenure and other antiquated measures of success.

In learner-centered environments all around the country, we see these qualities in full expression. Young people are inherently inquisitive, engaged, eager to build skills, and excited to grow. Learner-centered environments draw this out and enliven a love of learning, which will last for life. 

For example, we can look to FabX, a youth development program focused on helping young people develop a positive future vision for their lives in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island. Executive Director Steve Heath is working with his state to integrate a learner-centered answer to economic growth. Rhode Island is geographically and historically positioned to act as a key player in the blue economy—focused on “the sustainable use of the ocean to create a resilient economy and good paying jobs,” and is estimated at $5.2 billion, with more than 36,000 jobs across sectors.

FabX learned that introducing youth to recreational experiences in these coastlands serves as a stepping stone for young people to explore topics such as water pollution, climate change, and sustainable development—natural doorways into blue economy jobs. Already deeply integrated with Big Picture Learning’s flagship school The Met, FabX is building collaborations among educators, businesses, non-profits, and families to establish the mechanisms and connections to build a blue economy learning trajectory. The outcomes of connected learning will provide youth with agency over their future academic and career vision through real-world learning experiences relevant to their community. Learning engagements will provide youth with opportunities to give back through civic projects and hands-on learning.

The qualities that business leaders increasingly seek in their teams are the same qualities we see in young people experiencing learner-centered education. There is economic power and fundamental support in our ambition to grow our field and create a new system of education. Let’s seize it. 

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