In the bustling landscape of workforce dynamics, where digital systems and office norms reign supreme, there exists a significant yet often overlooked segment: deskless workers. At our recent SXSW EDU panel, "Supporting Upward Mobility for Deskless Workers," industry experts discussed how to better empower these unsung heroes of our economy.

The panel, moderated by Chris Lee, President of WGU Academy, featured insights from Chad Udell, Parminder Jassal, and Jeff Bulanda, representing SparkLearn, Unmudl, and Amazon Career Choice, respectively. Together, they embarked on a journey to shed light on the challenges, opportunities, and actionable strategies surrounding deskless worker empowerment.

Understanding Deskless Workers

Opening the discussion, the panelists illuminated the pivotal role deskless workers play in various industries, from retail to healthcare, transportation to manufacturing. These individuals, constituting a staggering 80% of the global workforce, serve as frontline ambassadors shaping customer experiences and driving economic growth. Despite their indispensable contributions, deskless workers have historically faced under-resourcing and limited opportunities for career advancement.

Chad Udell highlighted the prevalent perception issues surrounding deskless work, emphasizing the need to address unconscious biases that undervalue these workers' potential. Parminder Jassal echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of recognizing the humanity and aspirations of deskless workers, stressing the need for accessible skill development pathways tailored to their needs.

"When you're not at a desk, you're invisible, you don't get the help you need to set those goals to be upwardly mobile. That invisibility is a huge barrier to all of us,” Parminder Jassal said.

Seizing Opportunities for Empowerment

The panelists then discussed innovative approaches and initiatives to support upward mobility for deskless workers. Chad Udell elaborated on the significance of mobile-first learning technology in delivering accessible and engaging learning experiences, bringing the business directly into the hands and minds of deskless workers. Parminder Jassal emphasized the importance of identifying and prioritizing relevant skills, advocating for skills-to-jobs platforms to facilitate smoother transitions into career advancement.

Jeff Bulanda shared insights into Amazon Career Choice's initiatives, promoting career advancement and skill development among deskless workers. He stressed the importance of building a culture of employee investment, even in the smallest companies, to foster career growth opportunities.

Navigating Challenges

Delving deeper, the panel addressed the systemic issues that present major barriers for deskless workers, such as limited access to technology, financial constraints, and inadequate educational resources. Chad Udell underscored the role of flexible learning models, while Parminder Jassal highlighted the impact of financial constraints on deskless workers' access to formal education and skill development programs.

A Call to Action

As the panel drew to a close, each panelist issued a compelling call to action for audience members. Chad Udell emphasized the need to recognize the true cost of turnover and attrition, advocating for fostering and growing training programs to retain deskless talent. Parminder Jassal urged for community-driven initiatives and mentorship programs to support deskless workers' holistic development, emphasizing the importance of building a foundation for their future. Jeff Bulanda stressed the business case for supporting frontline workers and encouraged businesses to prioritize employee development as a key component of organizational success.

The SXSW EDU panel illuminated the critical need to empower and invest in this vital segment of the workforce. By recognizing their contributions, addressing their unique needs, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and development, we can create a more equitable and sustainable economy where every worker has the opportunity to thrive.