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CAEL Pathways Blog

Building a Vital Ecosystem for Frontline Workers


Frontline workers now represent a significant percentage of America's workforce. But what defines a frontline worker? Those who interact with customers, make products, and/or provide services fall within this demographic. Most of these workers make less than $30,000 a year and do not have a degree. That makes frontline workers a prime population for upskilling opportunities. With more training and new skills, many of these workers could be better positioned for career advancement. 

Fortunately, Digital Promise (also known as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies) has developed a framework for using data analysis to connect learning outcomes and the workplace demands of frontline workers. Digital Promise is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing higher education opportunities. It published the framework, Tapping Data for Frontline Talent Development, earlier this year. It provides employers, higher ed, and policymakers a holistic lens through which to view the frontline worker experience. This perspective can help us stay on the right path to building a stronger ecosystem that helps these workers prosper.

Upskilling Today

The framework begins by outlining statistics on the current state of workforce upskilling opportunities. It affirms the growing understanding of the need to offer education and training opportunities to employers, finding that 89 percent of employer respondents who hire frontline workers say they offer education and training opportunities. Unfortunately, 73 percent of those respondents also say that they are unaware of how many employees take advantage of such offerings. This raises questions about whether these programs have the intentionality needed for success. More worrying, only 1 in 10 workers said they had participated in an education class in the previous year. Just over a quarter of respondents said they had sought a degree or certification in the last year.

As we've learned working with companies like McDonald's to enhance their upskilling options, it's not enough to just offer education opportunities. Employees must have access to advisers who can connect the dots between education and career goals as well. Moreover, employers must clarify which opportunities employees qualify for, including tuition assistance. These steps not only encourage enrollment in upskilling opportunities, but they also increase the likelihood that workers will remain enrolled until program completion. In the process, they also boost the likelihood of employers realizing a return on their investment in such programs.

The Current Ecosystem

The most impressive aspect of Tapping Data for Frontline Talent Development rests in its thorough, interactive breakdown of how the many stakeholders who have a connection to the frontline workforce currently collect data about employees. Education providers, employers, job centers, and federal and state government all obtain data that can be used to inform upskilling opportunities for frontline workers. However, the current ecosystem of data acquisition is fraught with redundancies and inefficiencies. An impressive amount of data is available, but poor analysis and understanding renders much of it useless. As the author notes:

'The current learning ecosystem that serves frontline workers is complex, siloed, and not set up to enable workers to direct their own pathways. Despite the amount of data collected, the processes and systems in the ecosystem do not support the flow of data between stakeholders or frontline workers.'

The author is correct in that there is no one party that deserves blame for the present situation. Instead, all stakeholders must collaborate to build a system of data acquisition and analysis that appeals to each respective stakeholders' strengths, sharing data where appropriate.

Challenges and Opportunities

The report breaks down the challenges that impede proper, effective data use for frontline workers into four categories: legal and regulatory; technical; incentive; and a lack of common language and technical standards.

While each challenge alone presents intimidating hurdles that must be overcome, advocates for the frontline worker can take heart that Tapping Data for Frontline Talent Development provides actionable next steps. You can investigate and implement them regardless of which niche in the frontline worker ecosystem you occupy. Next steps like:

  • Raising awareness among stakeholders;
  • Advocating for data standards; and
  • Advocating for policies and incentives.

CAEL works with all stakeholders to help adult learners leverage connections among higher education, the workplace, and within local, state, and federal government to advance their careers. For more than 40 years, CAEL has helped these stakeholders overcome the same challenges and realize the same opportunities highlighted by Tapping Data for Frontline Talent Development. We encourage you to check out the report, which you can access here. Want to learn more about how CAEL can help your organization build a better frontline worker ecosystem? Contact us below to reach out!

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