Jewell: To Transform the Path to the 21st Century Workplace, Schools & Businesses Must Get Together and Teach the Skills Employers Need

Students have more options than ever when it comes to their education: traditional four-year colleges, experimental associate’s programs, alternative credentials academies, online-only classrooms, skills boot camps, professional certification programs — the list goes on and on.

Despite all these options, or maybe because there are now so many, there is still much to be done when it comes to holistically preparing learners for high-demand careers and the 21st century workplace. The changing world of work is forcing students to adapt to a new set of skills, but there are ways for students, workers, and employers to stay ahead of the curve. Most of all, we need to scale good solutions and help learners navigate the overwhelming number of options in order to find lasting career success and fulfillment.

What’s working?

A May 2018 Gallup and Strada Education Network report found that “the more relevant that consumers find their courses to be in their work and daily lives, the greater their belief that they received a high-quality education and that it was worth the cost.” Educational institutions must show a connection between learning and work in order to remain valuable in learners’ eyes.

Several boot-camp-style skills training companies such as LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based nonprofit, have established mutually beneficial relationships with companies like Boeing and Mastercard. How do such relationships work? Companies share their skill needs, which helps determine the curriculum, and offer learners apprenticeships and real-world experience. Learners can get the skills they need faster and cheaper, with a job often waiting at the end from employers who have participated in the program.

Another example is the partnership between Credly, a digital badging platform, and IBM. Students can earn “IBM-recognized” digital badges, which represent digital recognition of earned technical skills, and share them on social media platforms, online documents, professional networking sites, etc. Credly learners enjoy the value and prestige that comes with the IBM brand, and IBM, in turn, enjoys a strong relationship with a professional development company, which makes barriers low for IBM employees who want to refresh their skills.

Alternative credential programs aim to deliver knowledge gained through non-degree coursework. These can take the form of non-credit training courses, certificate programs, continuing education units, and more. Most programs offer flexibility (e.g., online classes), affordability, and speed, and they leverage employer needs to build courses and curriculum.

The Grow With Google initiative, which offers free online tools and training, is one example of a strong alternative credential program. Since the its inception in 2015, more than 200,000 people have found a new job or started a business by focusing on the job skills Google deems important.

Innovators are also challenging traditional education models. One example is former Harvard dean Stephen Kosslyn’s newest venture: Foundry College, a for-profit, online-only institution, where students will earn an associate’s degree by taking classes in “Clear Communication“ and “Practical Problem Solving,” and all schoolwork is accomplished in class. No homework.

According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, 87 percent of millennials say learning and professional development are important in a job. Companies that don’t offer these opportunities to current (and future) employees must take heed now. Furthermore, new research shows that long-term career aspirations are also foremost in the minds of the next generation of students: Generation Z.

Keeping learning accessible and affordable for employees is critical for all successful company-run learning programs. For instance, Pearson’s AcceleratED Pathways helps businesses manage their tuition and educational benefit programs more effectively so employees have access to fully developed education pathways and the steps it will take for them to reach personal and professional goals.

What can we do better?

If traditional higher education is to remain relevant, it needs to continue helping students see the connection between learning and a better career. Institutions must design flexible pathways that show students how to transfer their knowledge to a job or apply what they’re learning elsewhere. Possible improvements include providing more modular, skill-based learning options; more training that leads to in-demand, industry-based certifications; and recognizing stackable learning (the earning of ascending credentials in a specific field) as a path to earning associate’s and/or bachelor’s degrees.

While four-year college degrees continue to have incredible value, graduates need to understand that now, those are just the starting point. They’ll need to continue learning throughout their lives and focus on developing uniquely human skills, such as fluency of ideas and active listening. Employers, meanwhile, must take a more holistic and skill-centered assessment of potential employees if they are going to fill high-demand areas. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing out on qualified individuals who might not have four-year degrees but do have the skills and knowledge to do the job.

Education systems will need to support better understanding, teaching practice, and assessment of the granular skills that will be in greater demand. This could require significant retooling of teacher education or faculty incentives in educational institutions.

The next challenge

Academic institutions and businesses both desire, more or less, the same thing. Universities want to produce competent, employable graduates. Companies want to hire qualified individuals with the skill sets they need. But the two groups struggle to communicate with one another. Companies must better articulate the skills they are looking for and communicate them to educational institutions and learners through partnership programs. AT&T and Facebook are just two examples of companies that are providing career skill maps to partner institutions.

As skills-based hiring takes off and more new education models become available, learners will be presented with an ever-growing mountain of options. Which programs are the best? How does one level of courses or learning connect to the next? Where do they lead? How do you know an employer will care? Does your learning/badging/credential connect to a degree or a career pathway down the road?

When it comes to skills-based education programs, students will need help separating the exploitative from the honest, the recognized from the obscure, and the effective from the time wasters. A handful of companies and higher education institutions have started working on the learners’ “paradox of choice” dilemma by giving students guidance when it comes to selecting alternative credentials programs.

There are so many great ideas and experiments within and outside of higher education, but we have yet to see many of them work at scale. Members of the contemporary and future workforces will need to continuously learn new skills over their lifetimes, and they will need ongoing help choosing among thousands of options in a wide variety of skill areas. If the present has focused on innovation, the future must center on curation, as learners are going to need comprehensive and trustworthy guidance to help them navigate the new learning ecosystem.

Leah Jewell is managing director, career & employability solutions at Pearson.

Disclosure: This essay is part of a series of Future of Work stories sponsored by Pearson exploring how automation and evolving economic forces are impacting education from kindergarten through college.

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