Filling the Skills Gap with New Models of Education

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Each spring, May 1st signals “decision day,” the final date by which kids all over the country must lay down deposits to the college of their choice. But as the debate grows over the value of a four-year degree, how long will this tradition continue?

The signs are not good. Over half of college graduates questioned in a recent survey say that those just graduating with a degree now will see a lower return on their investment than students 10 to 15 years ago. In April, the Department of Labor reported that the unemployment rate for people graduating from college in 2014 was 12.4%.

Many blame the economy; others point to the disconnect between what educational institutions provide and what employers expect.

On April 28, the NY EdTech Meetup hosted “Rushing to Fill the Skills Gap” to discuss issues ranging from the challenges of adequately filling entry-level jobs in different industries to helping employees “level up” during different stages of their careers.

Closing the Gap Among Different Students

"There's a huge amount of human potential, of raw talent, in the entry level workforce,” said Jonathan Dariyanani, President of Cognotion, after last week’s meeting. “Many people who didn't tap their potential in high school remain under-productive in the labor market. These people don't need corporate versions of the same print textbooks they didn't learn from in high school. What they need is immersive, engaging, project based learning that meets them where they are.”

Angie Kamath, Executive Director of Per Scholas, similarly argued that hands-on work provides a much more meaningful learning experience. “There is an experience gap in addition to a gap in both hard and soft skills,” she said. “As we think about talent, we need to provide mentoring and internships. Experience is a critical piece of the skills gap.”

As a funnel for preparing learners for jobs, “the fundamental concept of school is not working out,” she added. “Good workforce development is about helping people get the first job and not stopping there.” Her organization, which provides financial, job-hunting, and workplace skills to underprivileged adults in addition to IT training, offers support for students for two years once they are placed at jobs.

Where Edtech Meets the Market

Sara Petry, VP of Product at General Assembly, stated that “at least 50 percent of college grads are not getting jobs in their chosen fields. There are market efficiencies to be gained and universities are not catching up to that.” Her organization has built a brand around providing workshops and bootcamps for “21st century skills” like web development and business essentials.

She doesn’t think General Assembly can replace traditional schooling, however. “Bootcamps and universities are not mutually exclusive,” explained Petry, who said General Assembly works together with universities “to provide an ecosystem of support.”

Ryan Craig, Managing Director of University Ventures, says companies like Galvanize are taking the bootcamp concept a step further by providing its students with projects supplied by real companies who have become part of the Galvanize member network.

Craig, who has written about the unbundling of knowledge and credentialing in College Disrupted: The Unbundling of Higher Education, noted that “We’re headed toward a competency-based marketplace,” says , which will “profile the competencies of students and job seekers, allow them to identify the requirements of employers, evaluate the gap, and follow the educational path that gets them there.”

One clear sign of this market shift is LinkedIn’s $1.5 billion acquisition of Lynda.com as part of its ongoing efforts to build an economic graph to map the economy and identify skills in high demand.

The panelists didn’t declare a decisive death knell for traditional higher education, but agreed that there are many alternative opportunities that can offer better value for students who are seeking specific, job-related outcomes. Per Scholas claims it places 80 percent of its graduates; General Assembly boasts 90 percent; Galvanize reports a 98% success rate.

These are attractive numbers, but if schools like these are to replace universities, they’ll need to grow their footprint. So far they serve only a minority of the job seekers in the workforce. One key for these alternative education institutions to scale, said Craig, is for their “credentials to be recognized the way they are now in the current [traditional] model.”

Sheri Handel is a learning design consultant who writes regularly on educational issues.

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