Education-to-Employment Pathways of the Future: Reflections from the ASU-GSV Summit

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The ASU-GSV Summit in San Diego brings together thousands of individuals each year for one of the most notable education innovation conferences in the world. And multiple attendees who had been to the conference every year since its inception ten years ago commented that this year’s conference noticeably had more sessions specifically focused on education to employment pathways than ever before.

There are now enough jarring stats floating around the education world from places like McKinsey (up to 800m jobs may be lost to automation by 2030) and the World Economic Forum (54% of the workforce will require some level of reskilling by 2022) that we have reached a broad consensus in the education community that (a) the workforce is changing dramatically, (b) the skills needed to succeed in the workforce are changing dramatically, and (c) there is evolution needed across the education ecosystem in order to deliver those skills to students and workers. There is less consensus, however, in deciding how that evolution can be achieved.

Below are my 3 takeaway themes from the ASU-GSV Summit on evolving education-to-employment pathways to equip individuals for the future of work:

1. Beyond Credentials: The Importance of Real Experience in Demonstrating Skills

In cultivating closer relationships between education programs and local employers, an increasing number of business models are going beyond just facilitating collaboration around what skills are necessary and providing students actual opportunities to gain real world experience in demonstrating those skills. The most successful education programs are approaching skill acquisition not just by teaching concepts and tools, but by also providing real practice and assessments/feedback on that practice.

These lessons are applicable as early as K-12, where after providing exposure to some of the viable career pathways that exist (Nepris, Roadtrip Nation), schools have an opportunity to start providing opportunities to engage in the workforce directly through channels such as entrepreneurship (Real World Scholars) and workplace learning opportunities (Launchpath). The biggest hurdle to these opportunities at a K-12 level often remains the incentives facing schools and teachers, who face immense pressure to teach to the test and to prioritize college attainment (which is materially different than workforce readiness).

These lessons continue to be applicable all the way through workforce retraining models, where successful programs are now putting less focus on the credentials a student leaves with after passive activities like watching videos (for example) and more focus on project-based learning that allows students to demonstrate the skills in a job-specific context (Springboard, Oji Life Lab). These models are also in alignment with the way employers are increasingly hiring: by bringing skills to the center of the hiring process (Skillist, Degreed) and evaluating those skills with innovative assessments (Knac) rather than just relying on a candidate’s resume credentials.

2. Beyond Higher Education: The Bubble of the Accreditation System

If an outside observer totally ignorant and unfamiliar with the American education system happened to stumble upon a few ASU-GSV sessions, she might quickly assume that traditional four-year colleges were a model as antiquated as typewriters based on the remarkably consistent dialogue at the conference around their brokenness. But they are of course alive and well, and still the primary path society encourages students to take to enter the workforce, despite the remarkable rise in cost of higher education (and therefore student debt, which as of this year totals $1.5 Trillion in the US) and concurrent stagnation in mediocre outcomes, with many college graduates still unemployed or underemployed (a study last year found that 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed).

Despite higher education’s value being increasingly questioned, four year college degrees are still required to apply to the vast majority of jobs. Some education innovators such as Lambda School CEO Austen Allred have compared the nature of the industry and the accreditation system that it is regulated by it to the taxi medallion system, as the accreditation process makes it extremely difficult for new entrants to gain accreditation, thereby stymieing innovation. It is because of this lack of innovation that Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen predicted in 2017 that over 50% of colleges would close down in the next 10 years. While it’s unclear if this level of closure will actually happen, it is clear that the current model isn’t working, likely leaving the potential for a few different directions the higher education sector might go:

  • Incumbent universities rapidly scale up innovation to effectively equip students for the changing world of work in a cost-effective way
  • New entrants drive innovation in sector by finding creative ways to comply with existing accreditation system (as Minerva Schools and Make School have done)
  • The “Uber” of the higher education world emerges, driving innovation in cost and outcomes outside the confines of the accreditation system

Perhaps the most interesting emerging models that could pose a threat of fulfilling the “Uber” scenario above are workforce retraining models who offer income-share or deferred tuition arrangements (Lambda School, Springboard) such that their incentives are perfectly aligned with students. These education providers don’t get paid unless they equip graduates with the necessary skills to get a job, often above a certain salary threshold. For now though, the challenge in expanding these models down to four year college replacements is likely financial: they would either need to find a way to access federal funds or lower the cost to serve enough to put them in a position to be financially viable enough to scale.

3. Beyond (just) the ‘Skills’ Gap: Creating Economic Empowerment for Everyone

As introduced above, it is widely agreed upon that the ‘skills gap’ (that is, the divide between the skills people have / are being equipped with and the skills they need to succeed in the workforce) is a key obstacle that the education world needs to create solutions to overcome. The problem is — addressing the skills gap alone doesn’t empower everyone — there is still a large population of people (largely low income and other disadvantaged populations) who are left out of the workforce and need additional forms of support to be truly empowered in the future of work.

In addition to the technical skills needed to succeed in a role, individuals from low-income and disadvantaged groups need models that address other obstacles that stand in the way of them reaching their full potential:

  • Soft Skills — individuals are less likely to have benefited from receiving basic soft skills training, which are skills that are becoming even more critical in the age of automation 
  • Social Capital — 50% of jobs are obtained through a person’s network, putting those without a significant network at a tremendous disadvantage 
  • Wraparound Services — individuals who were formerly incarcerated, who speak limited English, who are single parents, who have health issues, or who experience other challenges need the flexibility, support, and coaching to be able to succeed
  • Visibility to People Like Them — Coursera found that women students completed their courses 26% more often when their professor was a women; having visibility to successful individuals who have navigated your pathway from a similar background is integral to success 

The challenge in effectively supporting all individuals to navigate the future of work at scale remains challenging. There are numerous high-touch models that do provide the social capital, wraparound services, and other support that empowers these individuals to have upward mobility in the workforce (Youthforce NOLA, Braven, Beyond12COOP), but often times the models that are able to scale are those that are lower-touch and more standardized. A truly sustainable solution in the future of work will have to find the delicate balance between the two.

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