Lifelong learning – ordeal or opportunity?

ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 4
By Richard E. Crandall and William R. Crandall

Engineers of the future must increase their knowledge of technical subjects and soft skills 

The Collins English Dictionary offers this definition: “Lifelong learning – the provision or use of both formal and informal learning opportunities throughout people’s lives in order to foster the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfilment.” Lifelong learning is a conscious effort to acquire knowledge about one’s job or personal life and can occur at all ages. It can be acquired through formal or informal means and is an ongoing process. Some view it as a means of enriching their lives; others view it as an unwelcome intrusion on their otherwise pleasant existence, and a few reject the concept entirely.

Why is there a need for lifelong learning?

There are several factors that make lifelong learning a necessity for individuals who want to retain a level of knowledge required for their occupation.

Technology. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the need for lifelong learning is that technology and other innovations are occurring so rapidly that one’s knowledge acquired in a formal education at a younger age is no longer adequate to carry a person throughout an entire lifetime.

Complexity. In addition to an increased rate of change, technology is bringing increased complexity. Robots can now handle much of the routine work of data processing and physical routines such as welding, picking stock, moving materials and other programmable actions.

Globalization. As companies spread their supply chains throughout the world, the differences in work cultures, laws, climates, foods, working conditions, trade practices and a myriad of other variables make it necessary that employees acquire at least a minimum understanding of those differences and the effect their decisions make in carrying out their assignments.

Geopolitical. The world is fraught with economic and political differences. Hence, there is a need for greater understanding among people of all nations. To attain an adequate understanding of issues requires individuals to research a variety of sources to be sure their viewpoints are sound and not overly influenced by personal bias or superficial media reporting.

Multigenerations. There are now as many as five generations in the workforce – the veterans (born before 1946), baby boomers (born 1946-1964), Gen X (born 1965-1980), Gen Y, also known as millennials (born 1981-1997), and Gen Z (born in 1998 and later). Needless to say, each generation has a somewhat different perspective about moral, work, political and social issues. For best results, each generation needs to learn more about fellow employees who may have different attitudes on workplace issues and decisions. As younger generations move upward in the management ranks, they will inevitably encounter conflicts in the mixed cultures they manage.

Longer lives. People are living longer. This trend adds to the complexity of the generational mix in the workplace. In “The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives” in MIT Sloan Management Review, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott explained that it is also likely to cause individuals to consider multistage lives. They outline four key assets for a multistage life: Financial, consisting of salary and benefits, savings, pension and home equity; productive, consisting of skills and knowledge, professional reputation and professional networks; vitality, consisting of health, work-life balance and regenerative relationships; and transformational, consisting of self-knowledge and diverse networks. As individuals acquire these assets and become financially able, they may move to different jobs or become entrepreneurs. This may be especially true for younger generations who will have longer expected life spans.

Who needs lifelong learning?

Obviously, anyone who works for a living needs to stay abreast of developments in their field. For example, we need to know how to do our job.

Most of the readers of this publication are probably engineers or managers in a variety of industries. While they may recognize the need to continue to cope with changes in technology or business practices, they also deal with many other business or social contacts that would benefit from lifelong learning. Who wants to go to a doctor who does not keep up with the latest in medicines or illness treatments? A tax preparer who is not familiar with the latest tax laws? A retail company that does not keep up with the latest fashions or provide multichannel services?

We could go on, but the message is clear. Everyone needs to spend time in lifelong learning. Even those who do not have a commitment to work in an organization will benefit from lifelong learning.

What kinds of skills are needed?

There is a need to develop both hard skills and soft skills – hard skills to help us do our job and soft skills to help us do our jobs even better and to find greater enjoyment and satisfaction in our personal lives. Companies are learning that employees need soft skills to work in multidisciplinary projects, collaborate with customers and suppliers, and understand the long-range implications of policies of competitors and governments.

The World Economic Forum’s 2017 report “The Future of Jobs” lists the skills that will be most needed in 2020 as cognitive problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility.

There are an increasing number of ways individuals can acquire the hard skills necessary to do their job. The following examples are far from comprehensive, as the literature is filled with additional cases of new and innovative ways to provide lifelong learning opportunities for all ages. Educational institutions of all types are working diligently to provide the kind of education that better prepares graduates to enter the workforce. Schools are rapidly moving to online courses that make it more convenient for individuals to learn anytime, anywhere.

All of the professional organizations have certification programs that challenge their members to learn both basic and advanced information relevant to their field of study. Finally, there are publications, such as the one you are reading, that report on advances in concepts and case studies of successful applications of the body of knowledge within each discipline. Opportunities abound for those who want to retain competency in their job.

As with hard skills, there are numerous ways to acquire soft skills. Zakaria highly recommended a liberal education. While some with formal technical educations may not be able to return to school full time, they may be able to take courses at night or online. Volunteering as a paper reviewer for a conference will provide an opportunity for learning. Even better, preparing a paper for submission to a conference will help to expand one’s knowledge about a subject, and presenting the paper will improve speaking and oral communication skills.

Aside from the workplace, there are opportunities in one’s personal life to improve communication and listening skills – parent teacher associations at schools, religious organizations, youth sports leagues and community volunteer opportunities. Travel, especially to locations or sites that are different from one’s regular activities, often will be stimulating. Selective social media participation can also help to focus or expand thoughts.

One of the most convenient ways to learn is through personal reading. People who read a variety of publications or books can acquire different perspectives about subjects of interest. The Institute of Supply Management (ISM) reported that, based on a number of studies, people who read at least seven business books a year earn more than 2.3 times more that those who read only one book per year.

What is the ultimate objective of lifelong learning?

It is not surprising that lifelong learning should help us perform better at our jobs, whatever our position. The more we know about what we are doing, the more skilled and effective we will be. As a result, we will provide better products and service to our customers. This realization will lead to greater financial gains for our organization and ultimately to ourselves.

Lifelong learning can also help us in our lives outside the workplace. In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks, one of the most highly recognized authors on social issues, focuses on the deeper values that should influence our lives. Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, he challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “resume virtues” – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: Kindness, bravery, honesty or faithfulness. He reminds us that there is a lot we do not yet know and a lot of what we do know is distorted or wrong. Learning is a step toward wisdom.

Up to this point, the emphasis has been on why we need to continue learning throughout our lifetimes. There are at least two other reasons to continue lifelong learning.

The first is because we can. In the past, especially in developing economies, access to information and knowledge was not always available to individuals or groups of people. Today, anyone with a mobile phone can access more information than a previous generation even considered possible. We now have the opportunity to learn about any subject that catches our fancy and can design a learning path that is unique to each of us.

The second reason is because we want to. What was the most satisfying thing you have done? Was it driving a car alone for the first time? Receiving a good grade on a difficult subject? Catching a ball? Driving a nail? Learning how to attach a photo to your text message? Whatever you recall, was it not a learning experience? Admit it. Learning to do something new is exciting and satisfying, despite any trepidations we may have had about beginning the learning process. To put it bluntly, learning is fun.

If you’ve read this far, you are about to learn that Yvonne Bogorya wrote the first quote at the beginning of this article. Bogorya’s “Innovative Approaches to Management Education: Prepare for the Challenges of the 80’s” was published in 1986 in The Canadian Manager. The second quote was just last year in “Current Trends in Training of Managers in the Field of Information and Communication Technologies and Identifying the Barriers to Education of Managers,” written by Marcela Hallová, Peter Polakovič and Ivana Slováková for AGRIS on-Line Papers in Economics and Informatics.

If you got it right, you are well on your way to lifelong learning; if you did not, you’re still well on your way to lifelong learning.