It's back-to-school season. But for some in the U.S., especially full-time employees, traditional education is not an option. Yet they want to grow their skills, position themselves for promotions, or transition to a new career. Cue skills-based education. Fortunately, there is growing support for skill-based programs such as boot camps, certificate programs, and workforce training, especially in the wake of the pandemic and the Great Reshuffle.

However, there are some glaring omissions from the conversation on upskilling and reskilling as it relates to the digital economy and in-demand jobs for today's labor market. And company leaders who are willing to invest in skills programs and need a skilled workforce to scale and weather economic downturns should be mindful of these five factors when it comes to skills-based education.

1. Don't forget about foundational skills training and prerequisites.

The skills gap is real. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 31 percent of working-age Americans have limited or no digital skills: One in six cannot use email, web search, or other basic online tools. There is much emphasis on skills courses and not enough pre-education courses to give learners basic digital skills or prerequisites to be successful. Focusing on foundational skills to get learners ready for more rigorous courses or training is key to successful outcomes. Why does this matter in today's labor market? Millions of U.S. jobs require significant digital skills. The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution found in a 2017 study that nearly 100 million American workers hold highly or moderately digital roles. Businesses should consider partnering with reputable skills training providers that offer technology fundamentals programs.

2. Employers say they support training for their employees, but there are financial limitations to that support.

Of the U.S. employers that provide education benefits for employees, only 25 percent were willing to offer education assistance equal to or beyond the IRS tax exclusion of $5,250, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And the Aspen Institute noted in a 2020 report that from 2008 to 2018, companies with education benefits declined from 66 percent to 51 percent. Additionally, there is a vast number of employers that only provide reimbursement instead of upfront payments, which could be a barrier to workers enrolling in skills education. Company leaders need to evaluate how these limitations affect the companies' bottom line and impact their workers' ability to gain the skills they need in an increasingly digital economy.

3. Formal pathways to promotion and entry-level positions are often elusive for workers.

While many people are motivated to enroll in skills programs, the skills education industry hasn't done a satisfactory job of helping learners understand at graduation how they can secure an entry-level job with their newly acquired skills with their current employer. While there is increasing discussion on this topic, there needs to be an intentional effort to teach graduates how to navigate their careers and empower them to seek new professional opportunities. Companies can foster a culture of growing their talent by considering internal candidates who have upskilled or reskilled and encouraging them to apply for open roles.

4. A one-size-fits-all timeline for program completion fails to meet learners' needs.

How much time individuals are willing to devote to skills programs varies widely depending on whether they are working full time, the type of work they are performing, and if they have families. A recent study from my employer, Chegg Skills, revealed that 61 percent of working-age adults aged 18 to 50 cite balancing their family and personal responsibilities as the biggest barrier to completing their education program. Having flexible timing models will allow more individuals to complete a program. Unfortunately, most employers--with a few notable exceptions--have built one-size-fits-all programs. Skills programs must make program requirements and timelines flexible to accommodate learners. Employers can offer flexible schedules to support workers who are advancing their education.

5. Hiring bias is real.

Unfortunately, bias in the hiring market toward skills-program graduates exists. While the chorus for removing "the paper ceiling" grows, the fact remains that skills and boot camp graduates are not hired at the same rate as those who completed more traditional education programs. Evaluating and hiring workers on the basis of their skills and knowledge should become more normalized over time. Company leaders can review their hiring policies and basic requirements to include skills and certificate programs, focusing on workers' knowledge and not on where they acquired it.