‘Talent’ Has Become the New Theme Uniting Education and Employment

column | Digital Learning

‘Talent’ Has Become the New Theme Uniting Education and Employment

By Sean Gallagher (Columnist)     May 7, 2018

‘Talent’ Has Become the New Theme Uniting Education and Employment

The postsecondary education sector is on a collision course with the world of work.

Entrepreneurs and investors, government leaders, foundations and others are increasingly framing their goals around the concept of developing “talent”–or human capital–with less regard to where and how the education takes place. This theme was evident as thought leaders and executives gathered at the recent ASU+GSV Summit, an event that itself was framed around talent just as much as education. Talent as the organizing principle for activity in the higher education and employment sectors is driven by the convergence of skills demands in the economy; evolutions in public policy; trends in venture and philanthropic investment; and new technology developments.

Beyond ‘College-to-Career’

Demand for talent is at all-time highs in an expanding global economy. There are more than six million open jobs in the U.S. alone—and jobless claims are now at the lowest level since 1969. Significantly, talent strategy has risen to the top of C-suite and board-level priority lists. According to the 2017 PWC Global CEO survey, human capital was among CEO’s top-three business priorities—alongside developing digital and technology capabilities. The bigger picture is that we’re going through a period of change some have called the “second machine age” that is driving a need to focus on talent, as 80 percent of “middle-skill” jobs today require digital skills.

From the perspective of corporate leaders, “talent strategy” can be thought of as encompassing both talent acquisition (hiring) and talent development (classically referred to as “training”). Often, those in education circles fall into the trap of thinking about talent acquisition as relating only to new college graduates beginning a career, and talent development as taking place only within the corporate world. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the market for experienced talent–recruiting, developing and credentialing the tens of millions of adults who are already in workforce–is many times larger than the traditional college-to-career pipeline that captures so much attention. And the ecosystem to support professional and lifelong learning is growing to include a host of options, ranging from employers themselves to start-up providers, as well as colleges and universities.

On the talent-acquisition side of the equation, demand—especially in the technology field–is so great that firms such as IBM, Google, Microsoft, Hubspot and a host of others are providing their own public-facing education and credentials. At Northeastern University, we are working in partnership with General Electric to offer modularized learning experiences that create an onramp to careers in advanced manufacturing. Additionally, a number of employers have recognized that there are untapped or overlooked talent pools, and are now purposefully shifting away from a long-standing bias toward college degrees in their hiring practices—as part of what is becoming known as the skills-based hiring movement. Examples include IBM’s “new collar jobs” effort and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management Initiative.

Employers’ talent-development strategies and investments are also evolving rapidly. While there are high-profile examples of companies enhancing their tuition assistance benefits—such as the Starbucks deal with Arizona State or Chipotle’s work with Guild Education—that is not the norm (even though it represents a trend worth watching). The share of U.S. employers who provide traditional tuition assistance to their employees has dropped from 61 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2017, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Instead, companies today are increasingly likely to promote microlearning approaches that provide employees with short-form learning that may eventually stack into a larger credential.

In decades past, the corporation was the steward of many workers’ education. But employees today are increasingly more responsible for their own skill development. This shift in responsibility is arguably similar to how responsibility for retirement savings went from corporate-funded pensions to shared-risk and co-investment in the 401(K) in recent decades. Professionals understand that we are in a job market that demands lifelong learning. According to a Pew survey, 87 percent of Americans believe it will be necessary to develop new skills throughout their career to keep up with changes in the workplace.

Meanwhile, top executives in the U.S. aren’t always eager to be the ones paying to train their workers for those new skills. A global PwC poll recently found that only 50 percent of U.S. CEOs believe it is their responsibility to retrain employees whose jobs are automated by technology—compared to over 80 percent of CEOs in China and Germany.

But wait, didn’t companies say they see talent as a top priority? There is a paradox here. But remember, the market for talent is increasingly global and dynamic. Employers are identifying and acquiring talent through a wider range of sources, and employees and employers have more choices than ever in an open market for learning and development content and credentials—across a wide ecosystem of players and providers.

Blurring Traditional Boundaries

New players have emerged in recent years, in response to new demands. While degrees from traditional colleges remain the gold standard in many fields, a parallel ecosystem of options is emerging—often fueled by venture capital—which investor Ryan Craig refers to as “faster and cheaper alternatives to college.” His thesis that HR and staffing firms will increasingly play a role in lifelong learning seems confirmed in the recent acquisition of coding and skills bootcamp General Assembly for $412.5 million by European HR and talent-management firm Adecco.

Investment funding in what has traditionally been considered the “edtech” sector is now driven by firms that focus squarely on services and technologies related to talent development and acquisition. The largest funding rounds of 2017 and 2018, and the most richly-capitalized companies overall, include Coursera, Degreed, Andela, MasterClass, and Trilogy Education Services—which for example each represent services or platforms to help meet the talent challenge, rather than, say, companies that offer software or tools to traditional colleges.

Meanwhile, a whole new technology infrastructure sector is emerging to help companies and professionals document and share competencies in a world of digital credentialing. These include Credly, which recently made the news with the acquisition of Pearson’s Acclaim platform—as well as companies like Parchment, Accredible, TrueCred, Learning Machine and the non-profit Credential Engine. As learning and credentialing increasingly take place on the job, online, and from a mix of accredited institutions and other providers, a new generation of corporate software is emerging to organize and document this learning. Expert HR analyst Josh Bersin of Deloitte—who spoke at the ASU+GSV Summit—has described this market segment as “learning experience platforms.” He says these platforms are replacing the traditional corporate LMS, as employees increasingly “learn in the flow of work.”

In the past, companies that served the corporate training market were often off on their own, with little interaction with traditional higher education. Today, there are more multi-sided platform businesses serving a combination of consumer learners directly; employers; and working with universities.

Additionally, many of the foundations and nonprofits that have been major catalysts for innovation in higher education are also positioning their work around the “talent” and theme—recognizing the need for solutions that cut across traditional sector boundaries, and utilizing a combination of traditional grant-making and public-policy work, as well as new forms of impact investing.

For example, the Lumina Foundation—whose CEO Jamie Merisotis has written an entire book framed around the dynamics of America’s need for talent—has traditionally been known as the largest private foundation focused on higher education. Today, the foundation is describing its work in terms of meeting the nation’s need for talent by shaping and supporting postsecondary learning “however and wherever it is obtained,” through both traditional college credentials and workforce-based credentialing. Another large postsecondary education-focused non-profit and philanthropy, Strada Education Network, has made waves in recent weeks by acquiring labor market analytics firm EMSI; acquiring the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning; and launching an Institute for the Future of Work—all in service of better aligning education and work and meeting employers’ talent and skills needs.

Learning Happens Everywhere

In the emerging talent ecosystem—which includes new forms of microlearning and digital credentialing—technology tools and infrastructure will play a major role, often as a bridge between education providers and employers. The fundamental conceptual shift is away from the near monopoly by educational institutions as the principal place to help individuals gain skills, to a world where there’s a broader array of non-institutional providers and technology partners. This means that traditional educational institutions will need to be more nimble and responsive, and will face new competition for resources, funding and attention—while simultaneously being presented with new types of partners and technology enablers.

Government policy is also playing a role. For instance, governors in many states have started pushing to build out apprenticeship models, which are often positioned as an alternative to traditional postsecondary education. The extension of federal funds to non-institutional providers such as coding bootcamps already has a recent if still under-the-radar example in the 2017 “Forever GI Bill.” With the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization in Congress, the question of moving beyond postsecondary institutions as the sole recipients of financial aid and directing it to non-institutional providers—including the quality control mechanisms to oversee this—awaits debate and can be found in the PROSPER Act.

Shifting to a focus on “talent”—and the development of an ecosystem that supports and recognizes learning wherever it occurs—holds the promise of creating a more efficient and equitable market when it comes to education and careers. However, we are still in the early stages of this digitally-fueled transition. The blurring boundaries between postsecondary education and employment will require new types of collaboration and public-private partnerships, more evidence-based research and new approaches to quality control, standards, and infrastructure.

These changes are already happening—and the entities that do not recognize the significance of this shift will be in danger of missing the opportunity.

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