Insights from the IFC Conference: Learning for the Jobs of Tomorrow

IFC Photo.PNG

The IFC 8th Global Private Education Conference was held last week in Cape Town, South Africa which had the theme of ‘Learning for the Jobs of Tomorrow’, bringing together leaders impacting education from across the globe — a total of 370 participants, from 238 organizations, in 50 countries. I had the privilege of attending as the Chief of Staff of Nova Pioneer, an organization aiming to empower African youth to be the innovators and leaders of the 21st century.

Keynote speaker Gary Bolles (Chair for the Future of Work at Singularity University) highlighted trends in exponential technologies like AI and the dramatic impact they will have on both what future will look like and what future learning models must necessarily put more focus on to prepare students to succeed. Other sessions covered a range of related topics, including how foundational education models can evolve related to both the “what” and the “how” of learning, how a range of alternative learning providers and associated credentials can make the employment market more efficient, and how all stakeholder groups can remain agile in optimizing the education to employment pipeline.

Among the plethora of intriguing ideas and insights shared across the different conference sessions, I walked away with a few main reflections on the future of learning:

1. Evolution & Interdependence Among Stakeholder Groups

When considering the challenges that relate to an individual student/job seeker successfully progressing through the education to employment pipeline, there are numerous stakeholder groups that may impact the success of that student: K-12 education providers, higher education institutions, other education to employment initiatives, other nano-degree learning programs, the government, and employers themselves.

When we say the education “system” must evolve to adapt to the world of workforce automation, what we are really saying is that each of these individual stakeholder groups must evolve — and for each of them, that evolution may look different. For example:

  • K-12 Education Providers — can focus more on empowering students to succeed in an ever-evolving and ever-more-automated workforce by focusing on skills that are more “uniquely human” such as problem-solving, adaptability, creativity and empathy
  • Higher Education Institutions — can adapt more quickly to how to best equip students with the skills they need by creating tighter feedback loops with employers
  • Employers — can re-design their organizational structures to have humans working alongside technology to work in the most efficient way, but can also look beyond college degrees to focus on the skills that really matter and how to best test for them

One challenge in each of these stakeholder groups successfully evolving though is that many of them are interdependent on each other in a way that creates sub-optimal outcomes. For example, the vast majority of employers continue to focus on college degrees as a primary requirement for job readiness, despite their track record of an inability to consistently deliver optimal skill sets (not to mention their relative lack of accessibility). Continuing further back down the education lifecycle, the vast majority of universities continue to focus on test scores that incentivize K-12 education providers to put a disproportionate focus on test scores in a way that gives them less time to spend on innovative new models building the uniquely-human skills described above.

These interdependencies between education to employment stakeholders have created an inefficient gridlock, where none of the groups is operating in a way that allows the system as a whole to reach its optimal outcome — which is each student being most effectively prepared to succeed in the workforce and add maximum value to the economy. In order for the education system to successfully evolve, we must figure out how to breakthrough this gridlock.

2. The Valuable Role of a Central Facilitator

One dynamic that makes the challenge of designing the future of learning even more complex is that we don’t just have to solve the skills gap once. We have to be able to solve it over and over again. The exponential pace by which the workforce will evolve will mean that the education system itself will not only have to continue to evolve as well, but also do so at an increasingly faster pace. Therefore, agility of the system is crucial.

A second dynamic that is important to consider in this future state is the ability for the different stakeholder groups (mentioned above) to have some degree of a common language, including not only what skills are, but what proficiency in those skills looks like. This alignment would allow different stakeholder groups to be able to quickly and effectively communicate around the skills that are necessary in the workforce and how those skills can be developed through a combination of traditional and alternative learning providers. One company present at the conference, Degreed, was founded partially out of the dissatisfaction that college degrees are the only credential in the world that are universal; their aim is to change that by creating a lifelong learning platform that recognizes the diverse set of learning outcomes each job seeker builds over their lifetime that should be considered by employers.

When considering these dynamics together, it begs the question of whether there should be a “central facilitator” of sorts that acts as the connective tissue between job seekers, employers, and learning providers, and if so, what this player should look like (e.g., public vs. private? An aggregation of organizations or one large company?) A central facilitator could not only establish a common language among stakeholders, but also communicate (even proactively) where skills gap exist (or may exist) based on the skills that employers are demanding and the skills that job seekers are exhibiting and/or learning programs are providing.

One existing company that seems in a particularly good position to play this role of a central facilitator is LinkedIn — given their work connecting job seekers, employers, and learning programs (particularly after their acquisition of Lynda.com). At the IFC Conference, I had the opportunity to ask the Head of R&D for LinkedIn Africa about LinkedIn’s role as a central facilitator during a panel Q&A, which you view at the 55:30 mark of this video.

3. Automation’s Impact on the Global Talent Marketplace

Though I thought speakers and panelists at the IFC Conference did an excellent job speaking to the different ways different education stakeholder groups can evolve to better prepare for the onset of workforce automation, one critique I had was not focusing enough on the reality that despite efforts from all those stakeholder groups, there remains the significant possibility that a significant portion of the global workforce is displaced from their current roles in the economy (even if just temporarily).

One dynamic that was pointed out during the conference that relates to this assertion is the fact that different geographies (countries, states, etc.) will be impacted by automation in different ways, largely influenced by the breakdown of activities in within a geography’s economy and how that breakdown relates to the type of activities that are more or less susceptible to automation. In Mexico for example, there are millions of people still working in manufacturing roles that are extremely susceptible to automation, making their economy (and the individuals in it) even more at risk.

One trend also covered at the conference that does offer some hope in response to this risk is the decreasing amount of friction between global talent markets — that is, if demand (from employers) for a particular set of skills is present in one region, and supply (from job seekers) of that skill set is present in another region, the global economy is getting better at matching that supply and demand, which in theory may slightly lessen the blow of automation to particular regions.

Andela was the most notable company present at the conference that is actively contributing to breaking down barriers in the global talent marketplace. The company’s model involves training software developers across Africa and providing global technology companies access to this talent, while the individuals remain in their home countries. This is just one example of how barriers can be reduced in the global 21st economy, and it is a huge opportunity for players in the global economy to explore how the success of Andela can be replicated in other industries and geographies.

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