Patty Alper, author of Teach to Work, is collaborating with Education Reimagined to produce a series of articles that connects learner-centered educators with the perspectives and insights of the business community. In her first article, What Are Business People Saying About Education Today?, Alper explores the disconnect between what business leaders need from the newest generation of workers and what these recent graduates are bringing to the table.
I am often asked what corporations and employers are saying about today’s educational landscape. With personal experience running my own business, being a consultant to others, sitting on philanthropic boards beside corporate executives, and leading a youth mentorship program in schools, I have collected a wealth of data on business perspectives. But, delving deeper, unearthing relevant research, and conducting pointed interviews with corporate social responsibility executives for my book, Teach to Work, has brought me to new conclusions about business viewpoints on education in the 21st century.
In Teach to Work, I reported on the striking number of business executives—over 3,000 surveyed from 25 countries as part of General Electric’s Global Innovation Barometer—who identified their top business concern as “a need to better align the education system with business needs.”
This opinion is consistent with Gallup’s findings from their “Great Jobs, Great Lives” study, in which Gallup researched how America can best prepare students for a productive work life. In the largest representative study of its kind, Gallup interviewed students, graduates, professors, administrators, parents, and employers. The findings reflected the disconnect between how prepared educators think their students are for 21st-century jobs and how (un)prepared business leaders are actually finding those same students.
Specifically, Gallup reported that 98% of chief academic officers at colleges and universities say they are “confident they arepreparing students” for success in the workplace. Yet, “only 11 percent of C-level business executives strongly agree” that college graduates have the skills they are seeking as employers.
This is an alarming disparity.
In my own corporate interviews, I have consistently asked executives about their perspective on the pool of job applicants and the role of education. Each and every one shared the same critical concern: They cannot find qualified employees to build their company pipeline.
Interestingly, however, I’ve identified a growing trend that educators should be aware of: Corporations are proactively looking to partner with educators to help teach the skills they seek in the workplace.
Hearing it Straight from the Source
I recently interviewed SAP’s Katie Morgan, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility in North America. As a company, SAP is actively seeking out schools with which they can partner. In one program offering, SAP is committing 750 hours of employee time and a seven-figure investment to teach students technology and the skills needed to design, implement, and build their own applications. Morgan suggests, “Education often prizes conformity and chastises educational diversity. In an ideal world, thinking differently and creatively and taking risks would be prized. We see this in programs that are infusing design thinking or entrepreneurship—students are more likely to take risks. In essence, students should feel encouraged by school; they would embrace their talents and learning styles, which would hopefully foster a lifelong passion for learning and would be the best preparation for entering the workforce.”
I also interviewed Accenture’s Senior Manager, Jennifer Heflin, on this subject. Heflin spearheads her company’s nationwide Skills to Succeed Program that was launched in 2011. In this program, Accenture partners with KIPP Schools (as one example of 16 nonprofit partners), where employees collaborate with educators and students actually intern side-by-side with Accenture’s consultants. I had the incredible opportunity to listen in as students described their eight-week experience at client offices, like Fannie Mae or DCPS (District of Columbia Public Schools). Students’ takeaways were remarkable declarations of spirit, such as: “I’ve now learned to always bring my best self to what I do.” Or, “In school, it’s always just about a grade, but in the work world, you really try to make people happy—I prefer the latter.”
Heflin reflects on education today: “I wish all educators were keener on trending technology and its impact on preparing youth for the jobs of tomorrow—like being in dialogue with companies like Accenture.” She also suggests, “There should be career conversations all the time, exposing kids to pathways and ideas for their future. This kind of exposure will make them less fearful later on.”
Exploring a New Partnership Model
Purdue University’s new Polytechnic High School, which just opened in August 2017, is a fascinating case study of a school integrating the business community into its entire curriculum. Scott Bess, Purdue Polytechnic’s Head of School, told me the school was founded on the premise that the most important skill they can instill in their students is to “learn how to learn.” Bess says the entire school is modeled after challenges its corporate partners have identified and brought to the school.
According to Bess, educators are simply not keeping up with rapidly changing technology. Corporations are asking for students who can jump in and adjust to a rapid pace of change, but schools are not delivering. In this technologically-centered and career-focused environment, Bess says Purdue Polytechnic will strive to create “unleashed” students. He suggests educators open their minds and look more closely at the environments in which businesses create and thrive. When students leave Purdue Polytechnic, they need to know how to think differently. Students must learn to live with ambiguity and learn to adapt quickly.
What does a 21st Century Innovative Business Culture Look Like?
When I recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, the skills gap, or the preparation of students entering the workforce, was front and center in many corporate conversations. I was particularly fascinated listening to Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at X (a Google subsidiary), as he identified the historical impact of technology on society. To paraphrase him, in every decade where there has been advancement and institutional change, jobs have been lost. We must face up to the fact that change is inevitable. But, the goal needs to be learning how to keep up, anticipating change, and finding out how you can help.
Teller’s Moonshot organization exemplifies how cutting-edge corporations are doing business and demonstrates the employment standards that are expected in this fast-paced technological environment. All of us working with youth can learn from this intriguing workplace dynamic as we prepare students for the 21st Century.
Teller says he strives to create a blend of “raging optimism and scathing paranoia.” Using love and humor in the process, he encourages a workplace where employees challenge everything. The Modus Operandi: Test the Idea. It is the norm at Moonshot to throw out 99% of ideas. As a matter of fact, at Moonshot, they celebrate failure. That’s right—when a project is terminated and research has concluded that a vision is impractical, or a new product is not viable, there is a convening. They hold an event, not with retribution, but with applause, toasts, celebration, and a company-wide review of important lessons learned.
In the division he ran, Teller said they adopted a three-prong test for how to proceed with a problem and solution. First, Moonshot asked for big ideas—and only big ideas—to be considered. Moonshot wanted a huge problem. The company believed the only projects worth pursuing were those that had a global impact.
Second, Teller described how Moonshot sought a radical solution to these huge problems. No unique idea was unwelcome, no matter how far-fetched. Has this solution ever been implemented? If not, good. Let’s discuss how it can be.
Third, Moonshot sought a technological breakthrough. This would uniquely challenge his team; but it would also push the envelope of technology in ways that had likely never been seen. From Moonshot’s perspective, this three-pronged test would lead to the greatest innovations. Whether or not the idea was ultimately successful was not the point.
How Do You Cultivate this Culture in Your Learning Environment?
All of the insights and stories I’ve collected from the business community over the years have been directed with one audience in mind—you, the educator. The most important news I have for you: The business community is ready, willing, and able to help create a more dynamic educational landscape.
This leads us to ask more questions. How much of the business world should be taught in schools? What can we take away from these examples?
I believe educators should listen more intently to business leaders and understand the trajectory of change they are bearing witness to. Schools and educators have a natural partner in the business community. And, if this partnership is harnessed, directed, and skills-based, both schools and students will benefit greatly; schools will have greater placement opportunities for graduates, and students will have far more employment and career options.
In contrast to the book learning, tests, and core basics that schools teach today, I propose we reimagine the education process. We need to open the school doors to the tremendous resources we have right outside the school walls: the community of businesses and business people. How can we expect to prepare students for career success without inviting touchpoints to the future? How can we integrate those careers into our schools and give them a role?
I have coined a new term that describes a partnership suited for both educators and professionals: I call it “Project Based Mentorship®.” It is a blend of project-based learning theories and mentorship. Where the mentor has vast experience in the project dimensions and content, the student becomes the idea generator, the responsible party, and the driver of the activity and its execution over the course of six to nine months. So just imagine if you had a bevy of engineers, technologists, or journalists at your fingertips—how would you deploy them with your student body? This is what we are proposing.
I suggest to you that we need real-life practitioners as mentors in the classroom. And, we need corporations to influence and support the classroom. When a mentor—a professional from the corporate/business world—is adjunct to an educator, with a defined focus that is project-based, students are introduced to valuable skills that are eminently useful in real life. The students learn to master plan, tackle problems, and see how they can effect change with real-world application.
Along with the mentoring role, potentially, a corporation can also become a financial partner with the school. Projects that were previously not feasible can become new opportunities with corporate backing. Now, why would a corporation invest money into such a program? I have asked that question, and I consistently get the same answers: mentorship programs help corporations find (and educate) their future employees—their pipeline.
Summarily, the goals in this fast-paced, technological age should be to learn how to learn, anticipate pending change, and apply new knowledge and skills to keep up. Our educators and our next generation of youth need to understand technology and embrace the change—not work against it. That can only be done if we put the books away for a bit and welcome real-life practitioners into the classroom. So, I ask, who better to help pave the road to 21st century skills and job requirements than the employers themselves? This new partnership could very well be the missing link between the graduates of today and their gainful employment of tomorrow.