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Are lifelong learning savings accounts the answer to bridging the skills gap in the age of artificial intelligence?

A new global survey conducted by Northeastern University and Gallup shows strong support for lifelong learning accounts that could make it easier for employees to pay for their own education and training over the course of their careers. Photo by iStock

Technology is transforming the way we work and learn. And studies show that the advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for many jobs, including food preparation workers and office administrators, while creating new jobs in industries such as healthcare and infrastructure.

Sean Gallagher, the executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, says that people will need to constantly update their skills and develop new ones over the course of their

Sean Gallagher, the executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, says that people will need to constantly update their skills and develop new ones over the course of their careers in order to adapt in the age of automation. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

careers in order to adapt to the age of automation.

“I think what’s clear is that there’s a need for some new approaches and that the system we have is not designed for a world that’s being shaped by A.I., automation, more rapid job changes, and the need to continuously build skills,” Gallagher says.

A new global survey conducted by Northeastern University and Gallup shows strong support for a program that would make it easier for employees to pay for their own education and training. Asked who should be responsible for making

lifelong learning more affordable in order to keep up with advances in artificial intelligence, U.S. respondents overwhelmingly prefer that employers take on the burden. In Canada and the U.K., those polled expressed a preference that governments help pay.

“We need some new and more flexible vehicles to enable workers to save for their education beyond the classic constructs that we have that are mainly based around you get an undergraduate degree and you’re done,” says Gallagher, who helped to develop the Northeastern-Gallup poll.

Legislators in the United States have started taking steps to meet these challenges. The Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, recommends creating a savings account to which employers could contribute to help employees who want to retrain or learn new skills over the course of their careers.

Under the proposal, a person making less than $82,000 beginning at age 25 could put as much as $2,000 pre-tax dollars a year into the account and be eligible for a dollar-for-dollar federal match of at least $1,000. The individual could take the money from job to job and use the funds to pay for any training that would lead to a post-secondary credential, such as a certificate or a degree at the associate, baccalaureate, or graduate level.

Studies show that several countries around the world have forged ahead with their own policies to provide lifelong learning opportunities to their workforces. Singapore has established “individual learning accounts” for each citizen over the age of 24 to spend on education and training programs. The government seeds the accounts with a direct subsidy to individuals of $500, called the SkillsFuture Credit.

In 2015, France established individual training accounts that employees can use to pay for 24 hours of training per year for eight years. Businesses fund this benefit with a one-percent tax on payrolls, which gives employees opportunities to learn new skills in fields such as business and nursing.

And in 2017, the U.K. introduced a program that required companies with a payroll of more than $3.7 million to contribute half a percent of their annual payroll expenses to fund apprenticeships that teach digital skills. 

Gallagher cited a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management that found that the percentage of employers that provide tuition assistance has been declining in recent years. He suggests that giving employers tax incentives to invest in their workers could help offset a widescale reduction in the investments companies are making in employee training. 

Gallagher also pointed to another survey that asked chief executive officers around the world who should be responsible for retraining workers as automation continues to reshape the workforce. An overwhelming majority of chief executive officers in Japan, Germany, and China said it is a company’s responsibility, but that sentiment was shared by only half of the chief executive officers polled in the U.S.

“Companies based in the U.S.—around half of them—don’t necessarily see it as their job, and yet historically, especially if you go way back a few decades, a lot of training and career development was on the job,” Gallagher says.

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