When you ask the average person about higher education, the need for a new approach resonates with their intuition and personal experiences. Why? Several influential institutions have tried to analyze our collective intuition.
A Market Failure
An Economist Special Report in September 2011 titled The Great Mismatch explains how “globalization and technological innovation are bringing about long-term changes in the world economy that are altering the structure of the labor market.”
The traditional university preparation that most graduates receive is no longer enough for the changing demands of the global market. As a result, employers cannot find suitable hires and graduates cannot find suitable jobs. Further, The Economist argues that “lowering this new natural rate of unemployment will require structural reforms, such as changing education to ensure that people enter work equipped with the sort of skills firms are willing to fight over.”
Universities are excellent at creating academics, but would-be practitioners often don’t understand that academic research is not sufficient preparation for employment – and that they will need to supplement traditional education with practical know how to meet the changing demands of employers.
Ignoring Research at Our Own Peril
A 2010 report titled Got Talent? by human resources giant Manpower also addresses the issue of employers’ hesitancy to hire from the widely available pool of recent graduates. Manpower explains that though “unemployment is persistently high in developed and even in many developing countries, organizations worldwide report difficulty filling key positions.”
Employers cannot find graduates with the necessary skill sets to function in the new world economy because “there are not enough sufficiently skilled people in the right places at the right times” with these new skills encompassing both hard and soft skills.
A McKinsey Institute’s 2010 report — What Happens Next – takes the question asked by Manpower one level further and considers the gap between employers and employees “a growing talent mismatch” caused by Western countries’ inability to create a workforce optimized for 21st century global economies. Further:
“Companies across the globe consistently cite talent as their top constraint to growth.” They recognize that “governments aren’t moving fast enough to educate workers with the skills needed to meet the productivity imperative, and businesses can’t afford to wait.”
To address this talent mismatch, prospective employees need to recognize the skills they lack and find solutions to address those problems, offers the report
In addition to these three studies, there are several others that I could quote, including from theInstitute for the Future, the US Institute for Peace, AIESEC, and McKinsey (again). But most arguments boil down to the fact that non-traditional skills such as field experience and project management are every bit as vital to a graduate as academic knowledge and other traditional university preparations.
Which brings us to today’s reality: a critical gap in higher education. As one leading employer in the social change sector told me: “We’re the leading organization in our field globally, and no university has ever asked us what we’re looking for.”
The State of Talent Development for the Social Sector
But what, specifically, is the nature of this market gap?
What are universities doing well in terms of preparing people for the workforce and where are they failing? To answer this question, we conducted our own study in the spring and summer of 2012.
We surveyed 43 executives and recruiting directors in 34 leading organizations in the social sector. At the same time, we polled 39 recent graduates of higher education institutions with less than three years of work experience – working in 35 leading organizations in the social sector – on a slightly different survey.
The results of the survey were unambiguous: Both executives and future leaders believe that universities can provide theoretical/academic grounding and analytical skills. However, what employers are primarily looking for are leadership and problem-solving initiative, project management skills, and communication skills – abilities not exactly acquired through a traditional university system.
But both executives and recent graduates also felt that universities should not be expected to provide the full spectrum of skills and abilities that recruits need to be desirable candidates, thus leaving a gap between what universities provide and what employers are looking for. And this gap, they said, is best filled by a combination of workshops, internships and work experiences internationally. In addition to formal degrees, our respondents acknowledged, all of these methods are necessary to adequately prepare for a career in solving social problems.
The Amani Institute: What We’re Doing About It
At the Amani Institute, founded in 2011, we’re seeking to fill this gap between university education and the marketplace for jobs, thus better developing next-generation talent for solving social problems.
We do this by pioneering a new model for higher education that offers participants opportunities to:
- Get an intensive experience of cross-boundary work,
- Develop practical skills to build their professional toolkit, and
- Understand the personal journey this work requires in order to be effective and sustainable as an individual over time – all things that employers desire and that are critical for long term career success.
This methodology comes to life in our Certificate in Social Innovation Management, based in Nairobi, Kenya, but open to anyone in the world.
In addition to focusing on these three elements of adult learning, we raise the bar on each:
- We insist on moving from internship to apprenticeship,
- We focus on specific ‘21st century skills’ that are increasingly seen as sources of competitive advantage, and
- We work with each student to align what they are learning with their own personal growth as global citizens through structured coaching, mentoring and reflection opportunities at the edge of their comfort zones.
For our first course, which starts next month, we received 150 applications from around the world, for 15 spots. The final class is made up of individuals from 12 different countries, spanning the globe from China to Argentina.
There are, of course, several other wonderful organizations seeing and addressing different parts of this elephant of a problem. Some address it through gap-years, others in college, and still others in executive education or “encore career” programs. Although we need as many innovative approaches to talent development as we can get, our specific focus is to re-design the way education itself is conceived for those seeking careers in social change.
If we need to prepare future generations to thrive in a rapidly-evolving 21st century, then the way we prepare them – their education – has itself got to move into this century’s way of working.