Closing The Skills Gap: The Role Of The Chief Learning Officer

Closing The Skills Gap The Role Of The Chief Learning Officer
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Summary: Chief Learning Officers have an important role to play in closing the skills gaps in the U.S. economy.

Why Universities Need Chief Learning Officers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment, the labor demand for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers is projected to grow by 22% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also indicates that, by 2026, the shortage of engineers in the U.S. will exceed 1.2 million. The demand for skilled labor is rising faster than the supply of qualified graduates the U.S. higher education system can support.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the role of software developers as "those who create the computer applications that allow users to do specific tasks and the underlying systems that run the devices or control networks. Software quality assurance analysts and testers design and execute software tests to identify problems and learn how the software works." These are the developers that create the smartphone apps and digital platforms we use and rely upon every day of our lives.

Chief Learning Officers In The Industry

A widening skills gap poses a significant risk to the prosperity, growth, and national security of the United States. While the issue is multifaceted and requires implementing solutions from many angles and stakeholders—including K-12 administrators, higher education officials, policymakers, and private sector leaders—Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) have a significant role to play.

Chief Learning Officers in both industry and academia can drive efforts to align the supply of talent through the learning students receive in higher education to the demand of talent through identifying and tracking the skills businesses need in the economy to develop and deliver products and services. While this sounds like an intuitive solution, it has proven challenging to implement at scale because only one side of the equation, the industry, currently has Chief Learning Officers.

Specifically, industry organizations have separated learning and development from human resources and created Learning and Development departments, known as L&D. Typically, a Chief Learning Officer leads the L&D department and focuses on developing, engaging, and retaining talent by identifying the skills needed in the organization to reach performance and profitability goals [1]. The Chief Learning Officer engages with the industry to ensure that learning programs delivered in the organization address the skills the employees need so that they can develop products and services to meet customer needs, and ensures that the organization's strategic plan and goals are reflected in the learning in that organization [2].

Chief Learning Officers And Higher Education

In contrast, higher education institutions do not have Chief Learning Officers. They do have Chief Academic Officers whose role is quite different and predominantly focused internally on the university's academic affairs and internal operations. As a result, many industry Chief Learning Officers do not know with whom to engage in a university, get lost in the siloed bureaucracy, are unable to engage swiftly and directly with a central team at a university, and fail to implement—let alone scale up—workforce development and skill-gap-closing initiatives.

Most universities manage curricula at the school or department level, which makes it difficult for the university leadership to access relevant data to engage with industry CLOs swiftly. To bypass the bureaucracy, corporations often focus on building a relationship with one particular school or department within a university, which is, of course, positive but not conducive in the long term for a university-wide strategy.

The Role Of The Chief Learning Officer In Universities

Establishing the role of Chief Learning Officer at higher education institutions may positively impact the efficient and appropriate development and implementation of scalable, collaborative, and meaningful programs between higher education institutions and industry, resulting in workforce-ready graduates.

A CLO at a university can speak the same language as CLOs in industry corporations, making the interaction, engagement, design, development, implementation, and reporting of collaborative programs more accessible, more efficient, and scalable. Specifically, a CLO can add value to university engagement efforts with industry in many ways, including:

  • Engaging externally with industry leaders—including the Business-Higher Education Forum and corporations—to understand and map the skill needs of curricula.
  • Engaging internally with the various schools at a given university to share employer skill needs and create strategies to close the gaps.
  • Engaging internally to provide perspective in the structuring of degrees and credentials for individual learning paths.
  • Securing funding to design, develop, and implement scalable workforce and learning development programs, including MOOCs, hackathons, and other similar programs to ensure students are career-ready.
  • Collaborating internally to foster interdisciplinary cooperation across schools through fora and communities of practice.
  • Representing the university and its strategic commitment to workforce development, inclusion, diversity, equity, and access in the industry, government, and academic fora through talks, articles, and blog posts.
  • Securing funding for research (National Academy for Education, National Science Foundation, etc.) on workforce development.
  • Serving as the liaison around learning and workforce development for employers and government.
  • Establishing data analytics reporting capability to assess and measure the alignment of learning to employer-required skills.
  • Enhancing the university brand by tracking and reporting results through the university's social media posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc.


Creating a new role such as a Chief Learning Officer at a university does not have to be a burdensome cost. The position could be funded as a public-private partnership between the university and the industry corporate. The university and the corporate can jointly design a program where both parties can jointly define the goals, strategy, and metrics needed to successfully align the supply of skills by the university to the demand for skills by the industry employer.


[1] Elkeles, Tamar, Jack J. Phillips, and Patricia Pulliam Phillips. 2017. Chief Talent Officer: The Evolving Role of the Chief Learning Officer. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

[2] Haight, V. D. 2017. "What Do Chief Learning Officers Do? An Exploratory Study of How Chief Learning Officers Build Learning Organizations." Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University.