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Fixing the skill disconnect between educators and employers

If employers think students aren’t leaving education with the skills they need, who’s to blame? And why does it so frequently become a blame game between educators and businesses in the first place?

Jon Kaplan, Senior Learning & Development Executive and Consultant, joined us to discuss why there might be a disconnect between educators and employers, the importance of their relationship for skill-building, and the steps we can take to develop young talents as they enter the workplace.

Three takeaways on the employer and educator relationship

Who’s to blame if students aren’t leaving education with the skills they need?

Jon started with the brilliant question of whether universities provided talent with the right skill set in the past and, if so, what changed? Which can be looked at from two angles, the supply and demand side.

For the supply side of the labour market, we can look at three things. Firstly, the retirement of baby boomers has meant a need for more supply than we’ve ever needed before. Secondly, the talent market is truly global now as so many of us are connected and available everywhere, which means it’s far more competitive. Lastly, we’ve got the concept of diminishing labour market participation – meaning fewer people are in the labour pool for many reasons and it’s become smaller.

When it comes to demand, the type of talent that companies are looking for is changing. In the US, around two million jobs were lost to automation and that’s a great example of where the types of job we’re looking for are shifting. Remote working also means that people can work anywhere and companies are trying to figure out what they do with that. Jon believes it could accelerate the trend of higher-skilled people getting more reward. If they can work from anywhere with a laptop and aren’t tied to a location, they can be hired by more companies based anywhere.

So, in some senses, it’s more of a dislocation between the supply and demand side. Companies are looking to hire people for certain roles but aren’t finding people that fit them. So, if educators aren’t offering the development of those talents, upskilling responsibility moves to the employer.

Are colleges and universities doing enough to prepare people entering the workforce?

Perhaps universities will need to raise their game and change focus to providing skills for specific occupations. For example, if you wanted a career in pharmacy or engineering, you could study a degree in that and move along that fairly clear career path. However, there aren’t too many examples like that.

Part of that might be that “universities aren’t great at communicating those transferable skills that underpin their degree programs”, as Jon explains, which means people can’t always see how what they’re learning now can translate to potential career paths.

In fairness, we’re probably looking at more pressure than we have for many years. Companies now have that increased competition for talent compared to what they faced in the past, with investment from all over the world and global markets impacting their margins. And that may be a cause for reduced investment in employee development – sometimes a symptom is that companies then sign up to a content library and give everyone access.

The issue is that this approach typically requires what Jon calls the ‘learning to learn’ skill. If people don’t know how to navigate and digest what’s in these courses, they won’t benefit from them. And unless companies are content with focusing on positions where people can learn on their own, they’ll have to invest in the supporting structures that enable others to self-develop.

Repairing the disconnect between educators and businesses

In Jon’s opinion, the models that have worked require coordination between the two, which neither are particularly comfortable with. He gave an example of when he worked at Discover and they were speaking with universities to fund a bachelor program for their employees. Communicating with them was difficult because they speak a different language or in different terms at least. Understanding what they provided and the benefits of it wasn’t easy to discern and by the same token, it was harder for the universities to understand exactly what Jon and his colleagues were looking for. This is why you’re now seeing more intermediaries who are helping bridge that divide.

But we’re also seeing greater connections between educating organisations that aren’t necessarily universities and employers, with Jon giving the example of code camps where people learn over a short period and are typically given assistance in finding a role afterwards.

That example works because it’s specific, but universities and college educators can do more in terms of preparing people for more general occupations and setting clear outcomes for transferable skills. But the lack of shared language remains a big problem. If we take critical thinking, for example, employers and educators tend to define it differently.

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