Will digital jobs force a rethink of education and job training?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 26, 2016
A surprising headline about the irrelevance of university degrees made the think that workplace change is in the air. The reality is more complicated, but there are fresh ideas and data to consider.

Since I graduated from college in the 90s (1991 if you must know - grrr), I've been poignantly aware of the incompatibility between university education and the needs of the modern workforce. But I'm finally starting to see "lifelong learning" trends that may offer fresh approaches for individuals and employers alike.

And yet the issue is complicated. The first few years after I graduated, my liberal arts degree was practically useless. But once I acquired some real-world job skills, I came to appreciate how the critical thinking, problem-solving and research skills I learned in college might serve me well after all.

I was struck by a recent headline from Australia, University degrees ‘irrelevant’ to big employers. The headline jumped out because I've long advised young people to complete their degrees to avoid being screened out of job searches for that reason alone. A change in the "degree required" white collar job screening would put pressure on universities they haven't felt in generations.

News.com.au cites major employers that are shifting:

This week, international publishing house Penguin Random House decided to drop degrees as a requirement for job applicants, following in the footsteps of major consulting firms Ernst and Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The move comes as smaller employers are shifting away from hiring graduates or university students, believing kids are coming out of university with “no real skills” or simply being taught the wrong things.

Penguin Random House doesn't go that far, but they did cite a more diverse applicant pool as a motivator for relaxing their degree requirements, with a goal "to make publishing far, far more inclusive than it has been to date." News.com.au also clarified Penguin's new/flexible view on degrees: “While graduates remain welcome to apply for jobs, not having been through higher education will no longer preclude anyone from joining."

In Australia, employment of college graduates is at its lowest number since the 1992-93 recession. A recent survey showed that more than 25 percent of college graduates had been unable to find work for four months after completing their studies, and salary rates for graduates are going down.

News.com.au asserts that so-called "soft skills" are increasing in value:

Meanwhile, soft skills, such as being personable, adaptable, possessing strong digital skills, and adept at time management are being increasingly valued. (Check out my recent piece which details the importance of digital soft skills).

There are more damning quotes on the problems Australian employers have with college graduates, such as this one from Australia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO:

A number of our members consistently tell us they’re seeing students come out of university or training programs and they might have the academic or theoretical skills, but no skills to work at all. It makes them really hard to employ.

Another news.com.au article cites Paul Fiumara, a partner at Brisbane firm DFK Hirn Newey, who says:

[Graduates] have this over-inflated view of their worth, they come out of university thinking they’re ready for the world, but (clients) don’t pay us the rate that they pay to get some kid who doesn’t understand what their needs are.

Fiumara doesn't blame the gen Y graduates; as news.com.au puts it, he blames the "bloated institutions pumping them out," These days, Fiumara doesn't hire college graduates - he prefers to hire "cadets" out of high school.

World Economic Forum report: a  "wholesale reskilling" of the existing workforce is needed

I haven't seen the same evidence of looking past college degrees in the United States yet. Most articles, including this one from 2014, indicate employers might be emphasizing degrees more than in the past. But brute force screening based on college degrees does not necessarily mean those degree programs are churning out the right skills.

At last week's World Economic Forum, a major new jobs report predicted the demise of 5.1 million jobs by 2020 at the hands of robotics and other advances.  As Ars Technica put it:

The report's authors use the strong phrase "no more excuses" regarding diversity in hiring, and they offer a longer-term recommendation for companies to invest in "wholescale reskilling" of their existing workforces. It also encourages businesses to engage with governments and educational providers in updating high school and college systems for a new economy.

The WEF Future of Jobs report cites a shift in skills - two notable climbers are creativity and emotional intelligence:


The report anticipates cognitive, process, and management skills on the rise, with physical skills demand slowing:


To address these shifts, the WEF report urges us to go further than employee reskilling. The authors want an overhaul of university education:

Two legacy issues burdening formal education systems worldwide are the dichotomy between humanities and sciences and applied and pure training, on the one hand, and the prestige premium attached to tertiary-certified forms of education—rather than the actual content of learning—on the other hand. Put bluntly, there is simply no good reason to indefinitely maintain either of these in today’s world.

Continuous learning and the need for apprenticeships

Defining the skills of the emerging workforce is the easy part. The hard part is enacting change in two institutions: universities and corporate employers. I'm more optimistic on the employer side, though the many employees who lack training opportunities might disagree. (Each year I write the foreword for Michael Management's SAP training survey, and each year the data on lack of proper training is grim indeed).

Den Howlett took the "liquid learning" topic up in Infosys research – 12 key findings about next generation skills and education. As per Vandana Sikka, chairperson, Infosys Foundation US:

Exam grades do not automatically translate into skills. They also do not encourage continuous improvement and capability. Traditional education is heavily focused on static assessment and not on fostering the culture of ongoing learning and development that our longer generation needs.

Den and I have been in a skills debate lately; one thing we agree on is that the relentless pursuit of mastery is still at the heart of a successful career. However, Den makes a vital point: without apprenticeships, how do we expect young people to master trades?   As he says:

I want to see technology companies create apprenticeships that allow people to develop a range of skills but with the option of starting the journey towards becoming a master at one thing. To me, that fulfills the need for quality in the post robotic workplace while encouraging creativity.

Without apprenticeships, we're left with an array of online learning but little guidance in how to apply it. Howlett didn't write about structured mentoring, but I recently spoke with a colleague who has succeeded with creative hiring, including mentorship roles. In my own career, transformation always accelerated when I made connections with a mentor who went out of their way to spark my learning (and, in some cases, jostle me out of complacency). Other times, I lacked such mentors and found myself adrift.

Final thoughts

I can't speak for Australia, but I won't be changing my recommendation that when in doubt, get your bachelor's degree. Not yet - though the tech field has copious examples of luminaries who bypassed college and never looked back.

The WEF report nailed it with the  "dichotomy between humanities and sciences and applied and pure training." A classic humanities education turns out to have deep relevance when we consider the creative and cognitive needs of tomorrow's workforce. Though we'd certainly have to add a heavy dose of computer literacy, statistics/math and scientific inquiry.  Technical trade schools, meanwhile, excel at applied skills but don't equip us with the dexterity to shift from obsolete skills to new ones.

The need to merge dichotomous skills means the re-invention of educational institutions won't be easy. Add a new list of digital literacy skills, and I don't envy today's university leaders. Collaborating with employers is happening more frequently, which lends itself to the apprenticeship model Howlett advocates.

But even if institutions lag behind, ambitious young people can create their own educational recipes. Example: combine a liberal arts program with hands-on internships to ensure a more relevant skill set. Or: supplement narrow vocational degrees with creative writing, media production, or design thinking courses.

As for the workplace, the onus for mastery (and the need for a continuous learning method) still lands on the individual. Companies say all the right happy wonderful things about investing in talent, but automation and cost reduction threaten some jobs while changing others. Hiring managers under deadline pressure prioritize applicants with a checklist of established skills versus hiring for raw talent and upskilling. That's where the double edge of the free agent economy hurts both companies and job seekers. If anything, we're going to see more "gig economy" hiring which leaves little incentive for long term training investments. If we're not careful, we'll hit the worst of all educational worlds: where university degrees are still required, but are more useless in job search and performance than ever before.

We can hope/advocate for educational change, and perhaps the tides are finally shifting. But for now, the push for skills relevance will have to come from within.

Image credit: Woman learning with ebook and book. Education. © Voyagerix - Fotolia.com.

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