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What’s Missing from a Skills-Only Approach to Workforce Development?

Successfully reskilling folks, so they can move on to other jobs or careers, means catering to the whole person, recognizing each student’s existing skills, identity and context.

In her book Janesville: An American Story[i], Amy Goldstein documents the consequences of job disruption in Wisconsin, U.S., by following the lives of General Motors workers after their plant closes. One striking finding from her ethnographic research is that workers who attempted to gain training in new skills to find new jobs and careers fared worse—as measured by income, economic stability and mental health—than those who tried to maintain their former role by travelling vast distances to work at other GM plants. This failure of such retraining or reskilling initiatives, intended to help people whose jobs are disrupted in a rapidly changing work landscape, is not an isolated incident. The shortfalls of reskilling are being felt around the globe[ii].

A neglected explanation for reskilling initiatives failing workers like those from Janesville, is how workforce challenges are often seen exclusively through a labor economic lens. With that approach, problems are framed in terms of supply and demand for various skills, with skills development as the primary focus and less attention devoted to how to develop such skills and who is developing these skills. And while a labor economics lens is useful for understanding which skills are needed where, the same lens becomes inadequate when looking at how people learn and adapt to new lines of work. Supporting individuals in reaching Next-Level Learning[iii], we argue, requires seeing them as whole people, who bring their identities and prior experiences into the work they do. In other words, it requires changing how workforce challenges are approached, from looking only at skills to looking at the learner’s skills, identity and context.

The approach that has dominated Workforce Development for decades focuses on matching and transporting peoples’ skills and knowledge across job roles or professions. If a worker has skills A and B, while the market demands skills B and C, the typical strategy is to offer that worker an opportunity to develop skill C and, with that, expect them to be successful in the job market. The worker would be applying a skill they developed in their former role and a new skill they acquired in the Workforce Development program. This is what we term a skills-only approach—a byproduct of a labor economic lens. In the Janesville example, assembly-line workers were directed to learn skills to become HR managers, technicians for power distribution companies and correctional facilities officers based on in-demand skills in the region. As documented by Goldstein, several of those transitions failed.

Next-Level Learning Attends to Skills Plus Contexts and Identities

While transporting skills across roles and learning new skills are important pieces of any Workforce Development program, going beyond a skills-only approach brings powerful opportunities to better serve workers and support transitions across roles. Doing so will help prepare Next-Level Learners who can adapt to the future of work throughout their lives. A next-level learning lens brings into focus that learning and learning context are intertwined[iv], and learners do not necessarily recognize opportunities to apply a skill they have in a different context[v]. Additionally, learners’ identities are deeply embedded in their work and the learning process, but few training opportunities attend to how people see themselves in relation to their work. To better promote next-level learning, activities can be designed with a skills- and context-based approach, so learners understand how their learning applies to other contexts and recognize environmental cues that indicate their skills are applicable[vi]. They can also be designed for a skills- and identity-based approach, so learners can attend to the identity shifts undertaken by learning new skills. Here we give two examples that illustrate how reskilling efforts can incorporate context and identity.

Picture Jonathan, an experienced assembly line worker who cannot find manufacturing jobs in the region where he lives. Jonathan has extensive experience in software quality assurance and is comfortable testing entertainment center software for cars in a manufacturing context. With a skills-only approach, we would assume that Jonathan’s existing software testing skills would transfer to testing accounting software at a desk job for a modern startup office. Additionally, if the new role required learning a specific tool for test automation, using examples from a pharmaceutical context would be fine.

In contrast, with a skills- and context-based approach, one would look for ways to help Jonathan bring his prior experience into the training program and understand which of his prior skills could be useful in future contexts. For example, when learning about the new software automation tool, Jonathan would be asked to connect-back[vii]and identify where automation was used to support quality assurance in his prior manufacturing job. To help Jonathan connect-forward, learning activities could include a description of what is typically asked of a business software tester, and what a typical day would look like in that role, followed by a reflection exercise focused on listing which of his skills would apply in that environment. It’s easy to mistake the examples of instructional practices above as icing on a cake and the skills as the cake itself. In fact, research shows that how learning is framed and conducted influences how much learners will expect and seek out transfer in future contexts[viii].

Additionally, a next-level learning lens needs to account for identities. On one hand, people’s identities influence what and how they learn—for example, whether a male-identifying blue-collar worker will consider learning for jobs in caregiving industries historically perceived as women’s work or a pink-collar job[ix]. On the other hand, learning itself is a process of identity formation; it changes not only what we know and can do but who we are[x].

To examine what a skills- and identity-based approach would look like, let’s think of another scenario. Imagine Ellis, a travel agent who saw her job disappear with the rise of Internet-based travel services. Ellis decides to switch careers and become a life coach, an occupation in high demand. If Ellis sees it. As her role in the world to excite others and she values interaction, empathy and personalization, a learning program designed with a skills- and identity-based approach would invite her to think about how those aspects of her identity fit both her former role and future role. Such an exercise in a reskilling program would promote motivation in learning and challenge a fixed-intelligence mindset that makes career transitions harder, especially for vulnerable populations.

Fostering the Skills-Context-Identity Triad in Reskilling

Adding identity and context elements to Workforce Development does not mean replacing efforts to learn new skills and adapt existing skills to occupations in high demand. It is the exclusive focus on matching and transporting skills that often leads to missed opportunities to better serve program participants. A more powerful approach, in contrast, is to consider a triad of skills, identity and context while designing and running workforce programs—three practices that can help preparie learners to thrive in an ever-changing job market:

1. Foster the ability to adapt one’s expertise to different contexts[xi] as a learning goal in learning plans

Invite learners to actively and flexibly seek connections among domains, contexts and knowledge. One strategy is to infuse the teaching of thinking skills in context and to support learners in extracting what they learned, so they can transfer it to other contexts. For example, in an advanced manufacturing reskilling program teaching safety procedures for laser cutters, a trainer could invite learners to think about safety procedures in different job roles, like aircraft inspector or car mechanic, and ask which of those procedures would be the same and which ones would be different in those contexts.

2. Invite learners to reflect on their identities in relation to knowledge areas they are working on

In what ways does your identity facilitate or hinder learning in a new context? These reflections can ask learners to think about the links between what they know and who they are and can challenge beliefs of intelligence as fixed[xii]. Additionally, instructors can ask learners to discuss experiences that show how intelligence is malleable.

3. Plan learning activities with an agentive view of learners, i.e., that learners can choose goals and take action to expand their knowledge

Set up a learning context that invites learners to pursue active learning, which will allow them to learn by exploring varied contexts and identity-shaping experiences[xiii]. For example, a web development bootcamp teacher could invite participants to identify areas they know the least about—like how to setup and write to a database—and devise a plan to develop that ability including steps to measure progress and verify if they reached proficiency.

There are critical changes in mindsets and beliefs about the nature of learning that can better prepare learners for their future roles and work lives (ref. big ideas brief). To that end, the practices above represent a simple and powerful way to get started. Attending to the skills-identity-context triad when creating and delivering learning experiences is a strategy to push workforce development to the next level and a better way to prepare the workforce for the future of work.


[i] Goldstein, Amy, Janesville (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

[ii] N. Syed, “Davos 2020: Why Are Reskilling Efforts Failing?,” accessed March 5, 2023,

[iii] Tina Grotzer, Emily Gonzalez, and Tessa Forshaw, “In A World In Flux, Next Level Learning Is Critical. But What Is It, And Why Does It Matter So Much?,” TeachingTimes, July 11, 2021,

[iv] Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge University Press, 1991); James G. Greeno and Yrjö Engeström, “Learning in Activity,” The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Cambridge University Press, November 2014),

[v] D. N. Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, “Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound?,” Educational Researcher 18, no. 1 (1989): 16–25,

[vi] Tina Grotzer and Tessa Forshaw, How next Level Learning Enables a More Powerful Vision for Transfer. The Next Level Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, n.d.).

[vii] Grotzer and Forshaw.

[viii] Randi A. Engle et al., “How Does Expansive Framing Promote Transfer? Several Proposed Explanations and a Research Agenda for Investigating Them,” Educational Psychologist 47, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 215–31,

[ix] Janette S. Dill, Kim Price-Glynn, and Carter Rakovski, “Does the ‘Glass Escalator’ Compensate for the Devaluation of Care Work Occupations? The Careers of Men in Low- and Middle-Skill Health Care Jobs,” Gender & Society 30, no. 2 (April 1, 2016): 334–60,

[x] Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Learning in Doing (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998),

[xi] T. A. Grotzer, T. Forshaw, and E. Gonzalez, Developing Adaptive Expertise for Navigating New Terrain: An Essential Element of Success in Learning and the Workplace., The Next Level Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021).

[xii] Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills That Promote Long-Term Learning,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014),

[xiii] Tina Grotzer, Emily Gonzalez, and Tessa Forshaw, “How Fast Fish Sink or Swim: Adopting an Agentive View of Learners,” The Next Level Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. President and Fellows of Harvard College: Cambridge, MA., 2021.

For a discussion of instructional design and online learning in workforce development, see McGivney, Gonzalez, and Medeiros (2021). Next Level Learning Environments for Next Level Work: Applying the Learning Sciences to Technology-Enabled Training. Next Level Lab: Applied Learning Sciences for Access, Innovation and Mastery (AIM). Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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