Lifelong Learning: A Fact of Life in the Contemporary Workplace

  By Dr. Frank Burtnett  |    Sunday May 7, 2018

Category: Certification, Education, Expert Advice, Recruiting

Early in my career as K-12 educator, I encountered a middle school student who lamented over what for him had been to that point a mediocre educational experience. He summed up his experience with these words: “I’m tired of learning….I can’t wait for school to be over.” Little did my former student and generations to follow realize that learning would become for the American worker a lifelong endeavor, one that would make them perpetual students and dictate, in large measure, their personal level of career success and satisfaction. 

Lifelong learning, according to the definition contained in the Internet dictionary at BNET, the Business Directory, is the continual acquisition of knowledge and skills throughout somebody’s life.” That source adds: “It occurs in preparation for, and in response to, the different roles, situations, and environments that somebody will encounter in the course of a lifetime. It is supported by formal and informal education systems, both within and outside the workplace, through which somebody can both learn and receive guidance and encouragement. The adoption of lifelong learning is seen as a key element in continuing professional development, and as an important tool in maintaining employability.”


Demands for Lifelong Learning in the Workplace

Since my student uttered that ill-advised wish, the workplace has changed in numerous ways. New occupational roles have emerged as others have become obsolete and disappeared. Few occupations utilize the precise knowledge and skillsets their inhabitants originally brought to their work roles. In order to grow, develop and achieve their maximum level of workplace performance and to ensure career maintenance and mobility, the modern-day employee is required to be a lifelong learner.

Indeed, lifelong learning is a fact-of-life for the American workforce and the workplace itself has become one of the many classrooms where professional and skilled workers will learn as they move through in their personal career development experiences. The American worker of today and tomorrow can expect to spend a significant portion of her or his time (work and non-work) keeping abreast of the knowledge and skills required to perform their career role and progress in it to levels of mastery and achievement. 


Lifelong Learning is Individually Tailored

Individually, and at a pace each person chooses to follow, many in the workforce will chart a course of personal “renewal.” From formal course-taking and in-depth study to casual reading, one’s continuing education will be adapted to his or her personal needs and unique learning style. While previous school and college experiences were shaped for you, lifelong learning experiences---to a great extent---will be shaped by you for you.


A Curriculum without Limits

The learning options of the workforce are constantly being improved and extended and the sources of those educational experiences have become highly diversified. Imagine a virtual course catalog with as many entries as a phone book. Anything the professional or skilled worker needs to know to be more productive and efficient will be available to her or him. 

Using the technologies of the time, employers can bring any subject to any staff member at any time. If one can’t find a learning opportunity immediately---wait an hour---someone is working on it as you wait. Much of the applied curriculum of the workplace of the future will be a mix of content (the ‘what you need to know’) and process (the ‘how you do it’) information. Mixed in also will be a good measure of exemplary practices, illustrations of effective workplace models.


Classrooms will Appear Everywhere

Many employees will return to the formal classrooms where they once studied, the two and four year institutions and career training institutions that prepared them for career entry. Others will find knowledge expansion and skill-building opportunities through conferences, seminars, workshops and other gatherings designed to facilitate career learning. Emerging also will be Personal Educational Plans (PEPs) where the specific training needs of individual employees will be designed and activated.

The workplace itself will also become a classroom, as employers will bring entity- and subject-driven training directly to individual work settings and stations of its employees. In doing so, employers will be fulfilling a role identified by the American worker---that of responding to the professional and skill development needs of the workforce via ongoing learning experiences. 


New Educators will Appear and Multiply

The innovators and visionaries in business, communication, engineering, finance, health & medicine, manufacturing, marketing, sales & distribution and every other workplace environment---the practitioners that perform their career roles with extraordinary precision and success---will join the traditional teachers and fill the educator roles of the future. As the leaders, owners, managers, supervisors and practitioners of their discipline, their ability to teach and educate the next generation will be very much in command. 

Employers may not need to look too far from home for the expertise they wish to extend to their full staff. These “home grown” educators have the advantage of making learning relevant to the setting, a factor that even the best external trainers and consultants often struggle with.


Mentoring will Grow as an Extension of Teaching

Beyond the transmission of new knowledge and extended skills, many of tomorrow’s educators will personalize the post learning experience by serving as mentors. In this capacity, lifelong learning has the potential of becoming more “humanized” than many earlier educational experiences. A part of the ongoing performance-appraisal activity of the future may be the inclusion of PEP progress assessment where employees will be evaluated on their movement toward the achievement of the objectives identified in that plan.


Creating a system for lifelong learning and having the human resource development mechanisms in place that facilitate the knowledge and skill acquisition experiences of the workforce is growing in importance in the U.S. workplace, one frequently mentioned in the retention literature as an employment objective valued by the American worker. Studies by the Society of Human Resource Development and others has shown that growing numbers of workforce members covet the learning experiences needed to grow in competence and become successful in their career.

Futurists talk about the rapidity of change and the ongoing explosion of knowledge and technology that is ever present throughout the workplace. Lifelong learning is a means of adapting and adjusting---factors that will bring success to the individual worker, and to the business, organization or agency. The adage---‘get a good education’---should likely be changed to ‘never stop learning.” 

Direct future topics suggestions for The Career Mechanic and other inquiries to Dr. Burtnett at

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