What Skilling for the Future Should Look Like

Skills training has had significant investment — CSR, government and investor — over the last few years. What’s still unestablished though, is how much of an impact this training has had on actual learning and employability outcomes. From our perspective, there has been a lot of activity, with limited outcomes. First let’s break it down:

<spanclass=”markup–strong markup–h4-strong”>Why is skills training required at all?

The traditional answer has been because there is an enormous skills gap between young people (even those with a formal college degree of some sort) and the requirement of even entry-level jobs. Some kind of upskilling/ employment readiness is required to help the young bridge that gap.

When is skills training required?

In the period between school/ college and the first job.

What is the desired outcome of a skills training program?

The most common desired outcome (and one on which the success of most programs is measured) is the placement or job. In some cases, organisations add the criteria of what kind of job the student is placed in — entry-level vs lateral; technical vs non-technical.

Essentially, the traditional view of skills training is a band-aid to make up for the deficits in the previous 12/15 years of formal education.

There are a number of flaws to this approach, as we see it.

First — job placement or career?

Entry level placements are essentially playing to the lowest-common denominator. By helping a young person get an entry-level job in most non-technical industries, our value-add is ambiguous. Given the current demand-supply mismatch in many growth industries — particularly services — it’s unclear if our intervention was actually required for that placement at all. Apart from adding a veneer of “communication skills” and some interview-prep, has the training created a career trajectory for the student, or just a job offer?

Second — who’s asking questions about actual skills learnt? To our mind, the desired outcome of a skills program should be to create life-long learners. The world of work is changing; no matter how evolved the 12 or 15 years of formal education, there is going to be a requirement for constant upskilling/ upgrading. (Clearly, this is also the job of formal in-school education, but that’s the topic for a different blog — here I’m only focusing on post-school/ pre-employment.) Jobs that can be, are being automated. Those that can’t be, are becoming more complex. And there are jobs that will be created 5 years from now that we can’t currently fathom. To believe that what we’ve learnt in school and college will stand us in good stead for the next 50 years of professional life is a delusion. (“If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere, you have to be a lifelong learner,” NY Times, May 2017.)

Students who are coming out into the market are not even aware of how things are likely to evolve. We are letting them believe that if they manage to gather together some funds and invest in a “good education” from a “good college/ university” they are sorted. Or, if they were not able to do that, for whatever reason, they can invest an additional amount in a “good, employment-linked” training program that gets them their first job, and it’s all upwards from there. We’re not giving them a reasonable understanding of the challenges to come.

The answer to all this is not a short-term training course, even one that is highly technical, in the period just before employment.

The answer is creating exposure to the way jobs are evolving. The answer is creating the kinds of skill sets that are actually fungible and transmutable across industries. It lies in teaching those fundamental 21st century skills that we all keep talking about — creativity, collaboration, critical-thinking, problem-solving — that will actually enable young peopleto be life-long learners; to be adaptable; to keep upskilling; and to deal with complexity.

This is obviously not easy to design or deliver, especially at the BOP, but this is where the real value will come. Companies will need to not only be innovative about the kind of content being delivered, but also how that course is marketed. Market-based models for skills training are already fraught with challenges, so additional focus on content will be both hard to market and hard to justify. At this point of time, a course that positions itself as delivering 21st Century Skills is likely to have limited takers at the BOP; but maybe one that positions itself as a life-long career program will fare better. Companies will have to be forward-looking in design, creative in marketing and articulating value proposition, and have a sharp focus on business model innovation — margins are already tight. And all of this driven by the core mission of improving employability at the BOP.

These are the kinds of organisations that we’re looking to support from a skilling perspective.

Author: Maya Chandrasekaran, Menterra Venture Advisors

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