Posted: 18 Jan. 2021 7 min. read

Predictions 2021: Career

Innovations in career growth will spur investment in lifelong learning and reinvention

Today’s business environment demands a lot from its workers: to remain employable, individuals must be able to reset and adapt to rapid changes in the flow of work. While some organizations show a willingness to invest in the growth of their employees1, most seem blind to the real-world implications for individuals. Workers need access to timely solutions—and the resources to engage with them. Some organizations have responded by cobbling together programs such as tuition reimbursement, but many fail to recognize the potential impacts—or barriers—these types of opportunities often create. 

In 2021, we predict innovative career development methods and models for investment will unlock the imaginations of both organizations and individuals—allowing both to identify and invest in opportunities for lifelong learning and reinvention.

Simply filling skill gaps is not enough

Organizations that commit to workforce growth as their primary workforce strategy are at a competitive advantage, gaining improved business outcomes and increased adaptability.2 Mature organizations are shifting focus from just closing skill gaps toward building dynamic, diverse, and more easily deployable talent pools. Essential to that dynamic potential is a recognition of the importance of empowering individual aspirations: high-performing organizations are 37 times more likely to help individuals achieve their long-term career goals.3

The benefits of a strategic approach to career growth are clear—so why aren’t more organizations investing in the long-term career potential of their workforces? And why aren’t workers taking advantage of existing investments? Three major themes continue to confound both organizations and individuals: 

  • Out-of-step approaches. Many organizations and workers consider current options for expanding capabilities to be fairly narrow, often restricted to only formal education and corporate training.
  • Cost burdens. With student loan debt in excess of $1.5 trillion in the United States4, it is clear education can be very expensive. The direct costs are high, and the opportunity cost of stepping away from income to engage in development can be higher. Unfortunately, tuition reimbursement—how most companies address the issue—places the initial burden on the individual.
  • Lack of time. Preparing workers for entirely new roles requires investing the time needed to step away from work—something most organizations struggle with even in ideation.
The career development renaissance

It’s time for organizations to remove these barriers to growth and double-down on their awareness of the potential impacts of growth and development. The good news is there have been recent innovations on all three fronts. With COVID-19’s impact on jobs and employability, the stage is set for a career development renaissance.

  • An expanding universe of approaches. In truth, developmental options were never limited to formal degrees and corporate training. Well-known approaches such as mentoring and apprenticeships are helping to grow and diversify roles of expertise.5 New options such as boot camps are expanding rapidly. And organizations are using new talent and opportunity marketplaces as a mechanism for matching individual aspirations to expand horizons through the work itself.6
  • New models for funding. A wealth of solution providers, nonprofits, and government initiatives are spurring new mechanisms to cover the costs of career growth. Skills-based financing targets student loans toward high-demand skills, often matching individuals to potential employers. Prepaid options allow employers to offer workers opportunities to engage in career development as part of broad workforce capability development strategies.7 And income-sharing arrangements allow workers to pay off the investment as a percentage of future income once they have secured a better job.8
  • New ways to offer time. Some organizations have been lauded for creating space for personal projects as a mechanism for spurring innovation and personal development. More of these efforts are needed, but with a focus on embedding capacity for lifelong learning and reinvention into job design and staffing models. Opportunity marketplaces9 can be at least part of the solution if space is explicitly allotted during normal business hours. Then, as organizations make changes to their workforce in response to market conditions, moving portions of the workforce into learning sabbaticals can be a value-generating alternative to layoffs or furloughs, giving time to the pursuit of personal growth on a reduced pay structure.10

None of these options means organizations need to absorb costs entirely or free worker capacity to focus on their development independent of business priorities. By expanding opportunities and homing in on complementary methods, workers can choose what works best for them—to the benefit of both the individual and the organization.

Looking ahead

Career development is quickly becoming the foundation of workforce strategy. To drive innovative career models, organizations and workers must come together and embrace solutions that satisfy shared goals while considering the following:

  • Understand how to use emerging skills-based technology to unleash current and future workforce potential.
  • Think beyond immediate needs and commit to upskilling current workers before investing in skills outside the organization.
  • Consider the intersections of workforce development with other workforce processes, especially performance management and workforce planning.

Reinvention, especially in a sustainable, responsible manner, is at the heart of emergence in human organizations. The combination of new opportunities in terms of approaches, time, and funding, along with a new approach to workforce architecture and development, offer the promise of a completely new model for defining and navigating careers for the benefit of individuals and organizations. 


Matt Deruntz - Senior Research Analyst

Denise Moulton - Vice President, Talent Acquisition Research


1 “Beyond reskilling: Investing in resilience for uncertain futures” from 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Trends: The social enterprise at work—Paradox as a path forward, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Erica Volini, Jeff Schwartz, and Brad Denny, 2020.

2 High-Impact Organization Design and High-Impact Workforce research, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2020.

3 High-Impact Workforce research, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2020.

4 Student Loan Debt: A Rewards Opportunity in the Looming Crisis, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Peter DeBellis, 2018.

5 “Cracking the code: How CIOs are redefining mentorship to advance diversity and inclusion,” Deloitte Insights / Anjali Shaikh, Kristi Lamar, Kavitha Prabhakar, and Jessica Sierra, 2019.

6 Opportunity Marketplaces: Aligning Workforce Investment and Value Creation in the Digital Enterprise, MITSloan Management Review and Deloitte Insights / Michael Schrage, Jeff Schwartz, David Kiron, Robin Jones, and Natasha Buckley, 2020.

7Democratizing tuition ‘reimbursement,’” Deloitte Consulting LLP / Pete DeBellis and Julie Hiipakka, 2020.

8 Instead of Tuition, Students Give Schools Cut of Future Salaries,” Wall Street Journal / Anne Kadet, 2019.

9Opportunity Marketplaces: Aligning Workforce Investment and Value Creation in the Digital Enterprise,” MITSloan Management Review / Michael Schrage, Jeff Schwartz, David Kiron, Robin Jones, and Natasha Buckley, 2020.

10Fill Skills Gaps Using Learning Sabbaticals,” SHRM / Kathy Gurchiek, 2018.

Get in touch

Denise Moulton

Denise Moulton

VP │ Human Capital Insights Lead

Denise lives for the “a-ha!” moment. A hands-on leader who serves up insights that make sense in the flow of conversation, she works to help clients understand who workers are and what they can contribute. After all, what’s better than watching someone realize their full potential? Denise leverages her history as a practitioner in the talent space to get to the bottom of talent leaders’ problems, turn an empathetic ear to organizational challenges, and zero in on the outcomes that matter most in a dynamic world of work. At home, she is an all-in mom for her two kids and rescue pup. Denise holds a BA in English and has completed coursework towards a Master's in labor relations and human resources from the University of Rhode Island.