Deskless workers are critical to the economy, yet their learning and development is dramatically underinvested. Investing in these workers not only empowers an essential segment of the workforce, it also yields higher productivity across their organizations and supports a stronger overall U.S. economy. 

Who are deskless workers?

Deskless workers, also known as frontline workers, constitute a staggering 80% of the global workforce and play essential roles in industries like agriculture, healthcare, retail, construction, and manufacturing. 

Deskless workers — such as service technicians, construction workers, grocery clerks, and agricultural equipment operators — are employees who don't have a traditional office setup or access to digital corporate systems. Though some workers may use computers to complete their work — such as those in the customer service and hospitality industries — they typically do not have access to company-specific software and HR systems for pay, scheduling, and benefits. Deskless workers often lack equitable access to technology, resources, and opportunities compared to their office-based counterparts. Many rely on personal mobile devices to stay connected to colleagues and complete tasks on the go. 

Despite their crucial contributions, they are frequently overlooked in terms of investment in their learning and development, career growth, and workplace conditions. Less than 1% of venture capital investments are directed toward companies that cater to deskless workers' technology needs. This presents an immense opportunity for innovation and investment that can drive positive change in the lives of these workers and the organizations they serve.

The unique challenges of deskless workers

Deskless workers have different needs than their office/knowledge worker counterparts. Deskless workers face numerous challenges, including limited access to technology, lower job satisfaction, higher turnover rates, lower job stability, and reduced career progression opportunities. Nearly three-quarters of deskless employees still go to work while sick, often due to fear of losing pay or their jobs. Just 41% of deskless workers are engaged at work, and only 55% are highly satisfied in their job. 

Moreover, the lack of investment in career advancement and skill development for deskless workers creates a ripple effect that impacts employee satisfaction and productivity. More than 70% of frontline workers want to be promoted within their companies, but only 4% make it to corporate. Sixty-eight percent of deskless workers report not receiving goals or steps to earn a promotion, and one-quarter are considering quitting their jobs because of a lack of career progression.

These problems not only impact the well-being of these workers but also have a direct effect on organizational performance. This neglect results in high turnover rates and skills gaps, ultimately hindering both individual growth and organizational success.

Market trends impacting deskless workers

With a widening skills gap, continued labor shortages, and a large talent pool with less than a four-year degree, the opportunity for investments addressing deskless worker needs is timely. 

Eighty-four percent of corporate leaders, 78% of frontline managers, and 69% of workers believe that investing in new technologies for frontline workers improves the overall success of their organization. Overall, more than four-fifths of businesses say they’re planning to increase their deskless-tech investments, with an average spending increase of 31%. 

Corporate leaders, frontline managers, and workers themselves acknowledge the positive impact of investing in technologies for deskless workers. This sentiment is supported by substantial spending projections and the expectation that new mobile initiatives will increasingly target front-line workers. According to Gartner, by 2025, 75% of new mobile initiative investments are expected to be directed toward frontline workers. Additionally, the frontline workers' training market size is projected to grow from USD 18.9 billion in 2022 to USD 40.1 billion by 2027, indicating the increasing demand for solutions that address their needs.

Addressing the needs of deskless workers through impactful investment

These circumstances have created a compelling opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of deskless workers, who form a substantial majority of the global workforce. By directing resources toward addressing their unique needs — from learning and development to career advancement and working conditions — investors have the chance to drive meaningful change both for individuals and for the organizations that rely on their contributions. With the growing recognition of the value these workers bring, and the increasing emphasis on mobile-first technologies, the time is ripe for investments that can bolster socioeconomic mobility and productivity growth among the often-overlooked deskless workforce.

The WGU Labs Fund is poised to play a pivotal role in addressing the needs of deskless workers. By investing in innovative solutions that prioritize learning and development, career advancement, working conditions, and livelihood, the fund aims to empower this essential workforce segment. Key criteria for investment include mobile-first solutions, language inclusivity, and a strong focus on employee-centric approaches. The fund also targets solutions that particularly benefit underrepresented minorities, those without bachelor's degrees, and individuals from low-income backgrounds.

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