Reflections on chat2lrn: The Business/Education gap.

My participation in #chat2lrn has been limited but I wanted to provide my first reflection on the experience, starting with the most recent discussion about Business and Education.

Having operated in both environments, I think I’m safe in saying that these two worlds rarely seem to meet. Education has a role to prepare learners for the world of work, and many institutions do make some efforts to find out what business wants of their grads.

So, here’s a summary and reflection on this ongoing issue.

The issue of skill gaps (Q1) is pretty huge, from my perspective. I think the commentary below kind of touches on the gaps in a number of areas. Suffice it to say that until Academia stops playing in a walled garden, and when Business takes a long look at what they are getting, this gap is going to persist and is likely to become a chasm. I did see a number of small solutions proposed but both sides of the equation seem to avoid taking the long view of working closer together.

Universities and Colleges have a key role in preparation of students for the world of work (Q2), but I wonder if they really take that role seriously. They should be a real bridge between formal (K-12) and informal (PD) states, and focus just as tightly on soft skills as they do the hard ones. I think thy also have a vital role in guiding the transition of responsibility for learning as those exiting K-12 need to start accepting that responsibility. “You didn’t teach me” needs to become, “I failed I learn”.

One thing that stands out as a gap is whether or not Education institutions do a good enough job of helping students determine whether or not they’re in the right stream. Universities are replete with examples of students crashing and burning hard in programs they were unsuited for. Why not allow the “safe-fail” approach? It can become an expensive and demoralizing experience to fail out of a program or even realize you’re totally in the wrong place. Worse still is the student who manages to
scrape through a tough program, only to find they’re not employable in the field? Surely Higher Ed can do a better job of guidance?

Organizations have to get a better understanding (Q3) of what makes up these higher ed programs, but also to manage expectations of new grads. Again, the concept of “safe-fail” needs to be in play here. They also need to be actively engaging schools and sharing the requirements they foresee down the road and allow students to make the necessary academic
adjustments. They need to be relating the kinds of problems and challenges new hires will face when they hit the workforce. On a more blunt note, it would be nice if new grads weren’t potentially facing 1-2 years of “shit tasks” just to rack up “work experience. I’m not suggesting you make a new accounting grad your VP of Finance, but the usual pattern of forcing them into situations where they don’t get to put academic knowledge into immediate practice seems kinda wasteful, no?

Q4 raised a point I’ve considered for a long time, that of industry currency among educators. Interestingly, this question seemed to generate the most discussion. For context, I will limit my comments to the Higher Education sector. There are a lot of genuinely smart people in HE and they work hard to stay current and familiar with industry trends. By the same token, they have colleagues who have not set foot outside of academia for a considerable period of time, and for whom teaching has become a McJob, rather than a calling. This issue is illustrated well in Ontario, where College instructors do not have the same academic or research requirements as University faculty. In their collective defence, however, the marking, prep, and administrative overhead make it a challenge for full-time faculty, and that means contract/associate/part-time faculty have an advantage when it comes to availability for industry currency.

I like the idea of ensuring ongoing industry and there are some really creative solutions:

We could consider something like a reverse co-op for faculty. Take a semester every year or so to get immersed in the industry. Alternatively, you could engage new faculty on contracts of not more than 3yrs. That et they are fresh with what’s going on, but not completely removed when they go back. Think about the bridging opportunities there!

There almost needs to be an educational “awakening” in both sectors. Business needs to harness the strengths of the education system (academic rigor, research, reporting, results, etc.), and Academia needs to stop teaching in walled gardens, and to stop being “repositories of dead knowledge”. Colleges are better at it than most aspects of University education, but it’s still not quite reflective of the challenges industry faces.

I know it may seem like I’m picking on Higher Ed, but, Industry has a role to play in this change as well.

Finally. Im not convinced tbat the “current economic situation” (Q5) exacerbates this problem. Even when times are good, there’s gaps needing to be addressed. Heck, I know that even in my days in the military, I could finish a course, well trained and eager, only to hear “forget what you learned on course, son, this is how we do it in This Regiment”. What I have observed is that any time things get tight economically, people head back to school. But thatbegs tbe question – to me, anyway – what strategic guidance are tbese folks getting?Are they really able to take the right programs to position them correctly for the recovered economy?

Harold Jarche says, “work is the learning, and the learning is the work”. It sure would be nice if that’s what Education and Business were collectively aiming for, so the transition between the two becomes seamless.


Posted on February 4, 2012, in chat2lrn, commentary, ideas, learning, opinion, questions, rant, reflection, thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting post Mark and I agree with the points you have made. I too have worked on both sides of the ‘divide’. For many years I taught in Further Education where a lot of the focus is on vocational qualifications and skills. Students were able to develop practical skills and learn how to use them in the projects they worked on.

    Our schools also teach vocational subjects which are given an academic equivalent value. Unfortunately our current Govt believes in traditional academic subjects (they are even encouraging schools to reintroduce Latin into the curriculum) and that vocational qualifications are an ‘easy option. So rather than look at introducing more rigour into the voc quals, they made an announcement this week that they are going to devalue over 3000 vocational qualifications so that they will not have an academic equiv value and therefore won’t count in the all important school ‘league tables’! It is quite likely therefore that schools will stop offering vocational options to students and all students, irrespective of their ability and interests, will have no alternative but to take academic subjects.

    This has caused a great deal of concern in those that work with young people who are not academic as we already have a record high of 1.16m young people who are classed as NEET (Not in Education Employment or Training) and the fea is that taking this action will only make things worse.

    I can’t see this approach helping employers either. Courses like fish husbandry and horse care are going to loose their academic equiv grade. Whilst this might make sense the Dept for Education, it won’t make much sense to companies who run fish farms and stables as I am sure they would rather employ youngsters who have these practical skills that are immediately useful when they start work than a GCSE in Latin!

  2. I see similar challenges on this side of the pond. For example, the Trades sector is facing a wave of retirements and they have been crying for new blood. However, it seems like people are continually enrolling in Liberal Ars programs with no thought as to what they can actually “do” with a degree.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I did see one comment in the chat that said trying to turn an organization around was like trying to turn an ocean liner. However, I’ve seen organizations become particularly agile, and I don’t see educational institutions demonstrating anything like that “turnaround” skill. I suspect someone might have an easier time changing the course of a glacier.

  3. Part of the problem with the trades in Canada was a lack of interest in those Tradesman (Tradespeople?) in taking on apprentices. There were students completing the theoretical/academic part of the trade training who were unable to find the apprenticeship required. That has been partially remedied by the gov’t offering to pay a portion of an apprentice’s wages, so hopefull this will pick up.

    I know at the college level, academia is definitely turning their mind to those “soft skills” you mentioned. KPI scores generally indicate that students feel they are not being prepared for finding a job in the “real world” once they graduate. There are now many required courses in “networking”, “Job success”, “Job searching”, “Customer Service”, “Communication” ad nauseum. However, not only is it difficult to convince those very same students that they need to pay for and take the courses, they are difficult to teach as they are very industry specific.

    I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that I disagree with your idea to bind faculty to a three year contract. First of all, good luck getting unions to agree to that! More importantly, I don’t think that a good facilitator or teacher requires a “semester” of bridging in order to keep apace of what’s happening outside of academia. I think it’s more a state of mind. Most colleges offer PD to their faculty – perhaps a better suggestion would be to make it compulsory.

    I remember someone very wise once telling me that anyone can teach a subject if they have a good SME. Your idea of requiring “hands-on” knowledge of a subject in order to teach it would eliminate teaching opportunities for a number of good faculty who take it upon themselves to learn about their subject before teaching it.

    I agree that there is a disconnect between post-secondary education and the working world, but perhaps I don’t think your requirements for staff would be an effective resolution.

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