Lens on Lifelong Learners – Unemployed, Underemployed and Displaced

As we turn our Lens on Learners, we want to look at the different types of learners in today’s space, define who they are and also work to understand their needs and how micro-credentials and digital badging can help them. Let’s look at the learners with the most urgent need for retraining or additional education – those learners who are underemployed, unemployed, or have been displaced from their careers by either technological advances or other factors.

Underemployed, unemployed and displaced learners need to quickly do a few key things:

  • Validate the soft skills they have now, and determine how to transition those skills to a new career or job
  • Obtain new skills-based training that will translate to more than one position or career, opening up their options
  • In some cases, obtain new hard skills related to their desired position, and have a way to translate those skills into currency an employer can understand and verify

Many of these learners may already possess a certain level of education, but they are often in a more advanced stage of their lives. They have mortgages, debts, families and other fiscal responsibilities that mean they don’t have the leisure of time for a degree program or lengthy retraining. They need the answer to one question: “What can I do right now?”

The Types of Learners in this Group

Before we go any further, it is important to define the types of learners we are talking about. They are the learners with an urgent need of developing and validating skills that will help them transition into a new career field because their previous one is no longer viable for whatever reason. They fall into three categories, but these categories can, and do, overlap:

  1. Displaced Learners 

    Displaced learners can perhaps be best defined as those who had a career or at least a steady occupation but that job has been eliminated or downsized to the point where that career path is no longer viable.

    In short, they were employable, and now they are not due to circumstances beyond their control. In other words, they are not willfully unemployed or unemployable – in most cases they can, and must return to the workforce sooner rather than later.

    This type of learner, like the others covered in this article, has a certain level of financial need. An entry level job in an unskilled position will still leave them in fiscal jeopardy.

  2. Underemployed Learners

    These learners have a job – but probably not a job that meets their needs personally and/or financially. They are actively seeking employment opportunities and may even be a part of the displaced worker group. Their need for employment is urgent, but not as urgent as those in our final group of learners.

  3. Unemployed Learners

    This group of learners may have been displaced, but unlike the underemployed, they have either been unable to find temporary work in another field or simply cannot afford to take a low-paying position even temporarily. These learners may have been displaced by technology or may have recently graduated and discovered they either do not fit in their chosen specialty.

    That same specialty may not have the same relevance it did when they started their four-year degree. A clear example would be marketing. All of the big ad agencies and many small ones took a hit in 2020, laying off nearly 70% of their staff. Although a recovery has begun, new efficiencies and changing marketing priorities mean only about 40% of those who lost their jobs have been rehired.

    For those hopeful recent graduates with a marketing degree, the landscape is not nearly as positive as it was when their degree program began. There are upsides in digital marketing and related disciplines, but the typical ad agency job is becoming less and less relevant.

Besides marketing, in what career areas are learners most often finding themselves out of work?

The Industries These Learners Come From

Marketing is simply one example of an industry where AI, machine learning and automation were already eliminating some jobs and changing the scope of others. Realistically, any industry where a part of a process or even the entire process can be automated, skilled workers are being displaced in various ways.

Let’s look at a couple of other examples and what workers can expect:


Almost all types of manufacturing can benefit from automation. Not only does this save money, but it also protects workers – certain jobs are simply safer for automated robots to do than humans, who make more errors. But it isn’t even completely about efficiency and accuracy. Manufacturing often involves chemicals and other carcinogens that have long term impact on the health of those who work in those industries.

Of course, workers being displaced also means other jobs with different skill-sets are being created. Someone has to program the robots, teach the machines about quality control, monitor the automation process and make repairs as needed. These positions require different skills than that of a typical line worker, but they are skills that can be taught – and taught fairly quickly.

An Oxford report recently found that 8.5% of the world’s workplace, 20 million jobs, many  in manufacturing, could be replaced by robots by 2030. That’s a huge number of workers who will need to be retrained.


Machines can, and already do, many accounting functions and they do them well. Many low-level accountants and others have already been displaced by computer programs and applications that do a great job at tracking and figuring things like cashflow and profit and loss. Many small businesses do all of their accounting through programs like Quickbooks, Sage, and others.

This expands to things like payroll functions and accounts receivables among others. And as day trading expands and AI begins to also learn the markets, many financial advisors may face some kind of extinction as well unless they specialise in specific areas of risk and wealth management.

However, finance jobs requiring AI skills are growing and increased in 2019 by 60%. Workers in this field must prepare for this new reality. But how?

Credentialate Free Proof of Concept - Schedule a Demo

What Can These Learners Do Right Now?

First and perhaps foremost, in many fields there is a shortage of workers – a near critical shortage in many. The skills gap, although strenuously over discussed, is very real and still impacting employers.

There are some vital steps each learner can and in many cases should take:

  1. Evaluate Current Skills

    There are two types of skills – soft skills, which are very transferable, and hard skills, those specific to a certain job. For example, you may work well with others and be a very good team player or even team leader. Those teamwork and leadership skills will translate to nearly any position.

    There are skills related to each field that must also be learned and somehow verified for a specific job. A programmer needs certain language skills to work as a software application developer. The first step a learner can take is to make a list of both the soft and hard skills they possess right now.

  2. Learn the Language of Employability

    While this sounds like a mouthful, all it really means is that learners must also know how to present their skills, both soft and hard skills, to a potential employer in a way that employer understands. This means:

    • Knowing personal skills
    • Presenting those skills using a resume, evidence record such as transcripts, or through other credentials
    • Speaking to those skills and how they apply to the job the learner is seeking

But what if, like many of the learners we are talking about here, the job seeker needs more education? Realistically this must be something short-term and likely will be certificate or micro-credential based. This learner does not have time for a four-year degree program. Months, and preferably weeks, are all they have to engage in condensed learning.

What does that look like?

Education Options

First of all, a quick browse of the internet will bring up a variety of education options in a number of fields. The question becomes, how does one educator stand out from another? The short term training market is a crowded one – but at the end of the day, the certificate or credential received needs to mean something to the learner. They must be able to turn it into currency they can use to land a job.

At the moment, this is done through established frameworks, something we discussed in our series, Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace, or through company education. Here is a quick look at both:

Educational Frameworks

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll refer you back to our article, Frameworks – Proving Capability, Skill and Competency, that specifically addressed this topic. However, a brief overview tells us this:

  • Australia, the United States, the UK and Europe all have programs in place designed to add skills-based learning and the needed evaluations to existing formal education curricula at all levels – from grade school to trade schools and universities.
  • Employers are partnering with schools and these programs to enhance education and help to close the skills gap.
  • Other education partnerships, like that of ASU and Starbucks and a similar program run by Chipotle also work to upskill learners to new careers and education levels.

The point for our current set of learners, is that there may be traditional education solutions, even short-term certificate programs offered within the traditional frameworks, apart from full degree programs.

Company Based Programs

Truth be told, most digital badging and micro-credential advancements are happening outside of the traditional educational frameworks and are being run by companies like IBM, Google, and others. The reasons are multiple, and ones we addressed in our previous blog series. The primary ones are financial and the legacy regulations of traditional frameworks:

  • First, companies have a financial incentive to train people for open jobs they struggle to fill. And large companies have the capital to solve those problems. Traditional educational frameworks often face financial challenges – ones they cannot easily overcome
  • Second, traditional frameworks are bound by standardised regulations that govern, at least in part, their funding from government sources, a primary income stream for most of them. Making changes requires approval and time, something more agile company frameworks don’t have to wait for

Where are these programs available? IBM has their own internal certification program as does Google. Even Tesla recently announced you don’t need a college degree to work for them. “Move to Austin and come work for me,” Elon Musk said. “No degree required. We will train you.”

Time and Money

In conclusion for these learners – it used to be that learners had time – they could entertain the idea of a four-year degree, even make a couple of false starts and eventually graduate and move into a job or career of their choice. Money was also negotiable: some schools were affordable or covered by certain funding programs, and for others, particularly in the US, it simply meant debt they could replay once they took on an established job.

For these learners, neither time or money are abundant. They need to be reskilled now. Both governments and companies want them to reskill quickly and find gainful employment – and for similar reasons. For the government, the tax base is only increased by skilled workers who earn wages that are taxed; it’s about money.

For companies, it is about filling positions with qualified candidates. An empty position means reduced production and revenue. As Apple says, “Our most valuable asset is our people.” Without the right people with the right skills in place, companies are hamstrung and lost.

And this is why we are having these discussions. It’s essential to create a decentralised but verifiable framework that turns these certificates and credentials into something the learner can carry, either in a digital wallet or some other type of comprehensive learner record that an employer can verify and validate quickly and easily. This is also why programs like OECD and their learning compass exist.

For these learners, their need is urgent. Educators, employers and governments must rise to the challenge of providing pathways for them to upskill quickly. Otherwise a vast resource will remain displaced and untapped.

Final key thought: there are options – and its the alternative forms of education they’re turning to. If this is the case, educators need to prioritise how they’re going to differentiate themselves in a very crowded marketplace. Join in the discussion by sharing your thoughts in the comments section below. We can’t wait to hear your concerns, thoughts and ideas.

Connect with us

Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.

Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

In this blog series, we will focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace – who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face.

  • Edalex Blog Series - Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace Lens on Learners – how can micro-credentials help today’s learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators – if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?
  • Lens on Employers – how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?

Related Posts

Scroll to Top