Education, skills and employment

O ver the past months, as the economy has begun to recover, a fog has slowly gathered over the issues of education, skills and employment. Some have begun to question the value of education and the connection of education to employment. They ask, for example, Why are our college graduates underemployed? Others point to the growing list of employers with job openings they are unable to fill.

This morning I came across a very useful blog post that provides a practical map through the fog. Some of the key takeaways:

  • The time the average unemployed worker is out of work is increasing, and growing numbers of unemployed are simply dropping out of the workforce entirely. (About 5% of US citizens were able to worker no longer looking for work.)
  • A growing number of people are seeking disability, and the rate of increase is accelerating.
  • As the demand for labor is beginning to grow, employers are having difficulty finding qualified applicants.
  • At the same time, young people are having increasing difficulty finding jobs. The unemployment rate among young people aged 20 to 24 is over 12%, a rate usually seen in the midst of a recession, not a recovery.
  • Employers are turning to temporary jobs, especially in the low skill categories, to avoid paying mandated health insurance.

Part of the problem in interpreting the data comes in our inability to distinguish adequately between education and skills. Education is a credential, not a skill. Employers use the credentials that education provides as a screening mechanism for hiring decisions. In the end, however, employers are looking for skills. Employees possess skills that generate the value that employers are seeking to both create and capture. A college education does not necessarily translate into market-tested skills.

There is another problem not addressed in the blog post: large proportions of young people – – somewhere near a third – – who start high school failed to complete it. These dropouts are destined to a lifetime of low skilled employment at best.

And here’s another: at a time when skills are at a premium for employers, educators have little idea what skills are in demand or even how to teach them. (No surprise here: many educators lack much exposure to the world of business.)

At the end of his blog post, Mauldin touches on a dimension to this challenge that needs to be developed. He points out that connections in the job market happen most reliably through networks. This is not a new idea. Mark Granovetter, the Stanford sociologist best known for the concept of the “strength of weak ties”.  Granovetter completed his PhD with a dissertation that explored how people actually get jobs. The answer: through networks.

So, it occurs to me that we will address these challenges in our labor market not by trying to fix legacy institutions. Rather, we need to innovate through open networks.

Here’s one example. Right now both high schools and colleges do a miserable job guiding students with career choices. In a typical high school, a guidance counselor may handle between 200 and 300 students. Not surprisingly, the counsellor will focus on high-performing students with simple career paths: going on to college.

The more difficult challenge – – yet the more promising employment opportunity – – involves guiding students to “middle skill” careers. These are jobs that require postsecondary education but not necessarily four years of college.

The same story generally repeats itself in college. Career guidance is not a high priority in most colleges and universities. The connection to employers is usually limited to career fairs. Again, the guidance students need is something that the university, as currently structured, cannot easily provide.

Employers are not entirely blameless in this situation, either. As Luis Proenza, president of The University of Akron has noted, employers generally do a miserable job in communicating the skills they need to educators. Employers have detailed specifications for virtually everything they buy. But most cannot provide a detailed specifications of the skills they need for the people they hire. (As a result, they usually fall back on credentials as a screening mechanism.)

So, how do we make these connections among students, educators, and employers? One solution might be to open up the boundaries of our high schools and higher education institutions, on the one hand, and our employers on the other.

We need innovations in both producing and connecting skills. We will probably need to develop new visual language systems to communicate the skills that are in demand, the skills that individual students offer, and the skills that educators are developing in their coursework.

We will need new visual maps of career pathways.  The dynamic nature of these career maps highlight another challenge: the differing time horizons of educators and employers. Designing a new curriculum and moving students through the curriculum takes years. Yet, employers make hiring decisions with far shorter time horizons.

Mapping a career pathway represents a similar challenge that a molecular biologist faces in mapping a signaling pathway within a cell. Both the career pathway and the signaling pathway are complex and invisible. The most powerful way to communicate is likely to be through visual maps.

Bridging different time horizons raises yet another issue: the time lag of most government data. The vast data sets that government collects through, for example, O*Net,  provides  a starting point for mapping the complex, shifting terrain of the skills required to drive our economy. Yet, the time lags pose a serious challenge to any new, more integrated system we can imagine.

Here’s an example. Government does not keep up with the rapidly evolving nature of the skills needed to drive our economy. Government faces difficulty in keeping up with new occupational categories. So, for example, five years ago there was no such job as “big data engineer”.

The solution to these challenges will come through the integration of data, visualization and, most important, disciplined conversation. We need to leave behind the notion that we can fix a set of legacy systems. Rather, we need innovation to draw dynamic career maps, characterize these careers with meaningful skills, and tighten the linkages between learning experiences and career opportunities. To do this work, we need the continuous, disciplined conversation that leads to innovation.

In the future, I suspect, the challenge will be met by designing something similar to a  large scale multi-player game for each regional economy.

Where, in your community or region, are these innovating conversations taking place?

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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