In their new book The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete, and Succeed, Kelly Palmer and David Blake make the case that valuing skills and expertise can be a competitive advantage. I spoke with David and Kelly to get their insights on how companies can partner with colleges to prepare students for the work world, as well as avenues for people to develop workforce skills outside of a college setting.
Your book mentions that college graduates often don’t have the skills they need to succeed in today’s workforce. What alternatives exist to a traditional college education?
David: Students aren’t always getting the skills they need to succeed, but that doesn’t immediately mean we need alternatives to the traditional college education. We are seeing alternatives emerge, and I think that is healthy and helpful. But with either pathway—whether someone is coming from college or from a new alternative—what’s important is that we’re giving them the skills to be successful. We’re seeing that competency-based education is a big trend in higher education, which means trying to break down majors and identifying the competencies developed so students and employers can both make better matches. And where students have developed skills, they’re able to go and use them. It also is the start of a conversation where employers can ask, “If these are the competencies or these are the skills we need for people to be successful in this role in our company, is this program at this partner university where we recruit really well-aligned with that?”
Another important factor is that our careers used to be pretty standard, and people had one or two or three employers throughout their careers. Now, job duration has fallen dramatically to 4.5 years. In the book we cover how we’re in an age of increased digitalization, acceleration, and automation. We now exist in a world where people need to be learning, unlearning, and relearning—skilling and reskilling—throughout their entire career. We have to give students that skill set at the university level. Keeping them in a highly structured curriculum or major program isn’t always to students’ benefits. So, we need to help students achieve outcomes in a context with some ambiguity because that’s the new future of work.
Finally, one of the biggest competitive advantages for students is having a personal project that is connected to their personal mission, their interests, and their strengths so they can develop outside of the structure of university. It’s differentiating, it’s interesting, it unlocks doors.
Alternative to the traditional college learning experience, we’re seeing a lot of really interesting models emerge. You’ve got the boot camp model, the earning-while-learning models emerging, community college, and even skipping community college to go right to an employer. I just recently heard for the first time Silicon Valley talking about recruiting direct from high school. They’re bringing people into the organization into a learning program, but it’s one where they’re able to earn while they learn and develop a skill set.
How can companies work with colleges to better prepare students to succeed in the work world?
Kelly: The first way is that companies can build their own programs to fill critical skills gaps in emerging areas. Say for example that a student wants to learn about cybersecurity, analytics, or cryptocurrency, they’re not going to find much up-to-date learning at universities because of the time it takes to add content to a university curriculum. But companies are making incredible advances in the industry. With cryptocurrency, for example, a company could put together learning programs to teach people these skills, and then actually recruit people from those programs into their companies, or just have people learning those skills for the entire industry.
The second way is companies are partnering with students to get real-world experience while they’re actually earning their degrees. For example, at the University of Oregon, the public relations department has students work with real clients at real companies during their senior year. Students do client presentations, so they’re actually getting experience in the industry. They also have to present their entire school portfolio in front of an industry panel before they can graduate and get their degree. The advantage is that once they graduate, they know what real work looks like and have experience. It’s kind of another take on internships with more than just one company.
Finally, more and more universities have been using technology or learning platforms to help people with more real-time, up-to-date personal learning to augment what they’re offering for students. That can help students prepare for the real world of work, too. With personalized learning programs, students actually talk about what skills they’ve learned, in addition to the more formal curriculum they have at the university.
At one point in the book, you ask readers whether they would choose a Harvard education or a Harvard degree. Could you elaborate on why you think this choice is significant, and what it says about the current state of education?
David: Over the last couple of years, with the advent of the MOOCs (massive open online courses), you can now get an Ivy League-level education for free. Yet, people are still paying tens of thousands of dollars to go to these schools. You can get the content for free, but people are still willing to pay for the rest of it. Michael Spence won a Noble Prize in economics for showing empirically that the value that’s held in higher education is the credential.
If we are really going to begin to affect the cost equation in higher education, it means we need to begin to affect that conversation around the credential. What you hear the market saying is, “We need skills. There’s a skills gap. We need people with skills.” The market wants to speak that language of skills, but it can’t. There is no common language, there is no lingua franca for skills, so they are left to speak the language of college degrees. Part of what perpetually reinforces that value is what schools charge students for that credential seems to go up and up and up.
How this really changes—which will be to students’ benefit, and certainly to employers—is we have to get it to a place where we can speak that language of skills. If we can do that, then it opens up, irrespective of how or where you developed your skills. It gives the market a way to be able to transact on them.
In the second part of our interview, we will explore how businesses can use learning as a competitive advantage. And be sure to join David and Kelly February 7 at ATD 2019 TechKnowledge. Their session will include the latest scientific research on how people really learn and concrete examples from companies worldwide who are driving the conversation about how to create experts and align learning innovation with business strategy.