Of the many issues facing the leaders of industrialized countries these days one of the most important and complex is education. On the face of it, learning is vital for anybody wishing to succeed in the modern world. For at least a couple of decades politicians of various stripes have been talking of its importance. For instance, Tony Blair insisted ahead of becoming U.K. prime minister in 1997 that his three priorities were “education, education, education”, while George W Bush had a number of education initiatives while president, including the No Child Left Behind Act, which aimed to reduce the gap in performance between poor and better off students. And yet still there is a conviction that business is not getting the skilled people it needs. At the same time, young people who decide to seek education beyond school are incurring increasing amounts of debt without necessarily obtaining the jobs that they might expect.
Indeed, a report last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that in England 28% of graduates had jobs that did not require a degree. Part of the problem, as the report explains, is that young people may be seen as overqualified but they may not be overskilled. And the situation looks like becoming worse because growing numbers believe they need to go to college — even though the sorts of jobs that college graduates have traditionally performed are either going away or are changing. As Adam Medros, president and chief operating officer of edX, the online education provider, says: “A great number of people coming out of university are not job-ready.” A report last year by software analytics company Burning Glass Technologies in conjunction with the Business-Education Forum went further, identifying 14 “new foundational skills” split between human skills, digital building block skills and business enabler skills. “Despite the fact that having skills from all three groups can provide a significant advantage, Burning Glass’ examination of resumes showed that only one-fifth of workers claim skills in all three categories,” it says.
In a recent interview, Medros explained how edX, founded in 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now with more than 120 institutional partners, was “focused on learners, giving them new skills to ultimately lead to better outcomes in terms of careers and earnings.” One of the leading providers of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in everything from world literature to medicine, the organization also has a program targeted at business. It sees it as giving employers the ability to continually develop new capabilities among their workforces using online learning in such rapidly evolving areas as data analytics and digital management. Medros believes that educating and developing workers is becoming an issue of corporate social responsibility for businesses and he points to how companies as different as the finance firm JPMorgan Chase and the fast food group Papa John’sare setting up education programs for their workers. “Leaders realise that education has to be accessible,” he says.
Some of the content of these courses will be highly specialized and designed to make employees better equipped to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and robotics are playing an increasingly important role. But Medros says that business also needs to bring in “soft skills” in order to ensure that employees have a more “holistic” training around such issues as culture and behavior that will help set them apart from machines. “There’s a broad set of humanitarian skills that we think of as traditional liberal arts education,” he says. With the cost of seeking new recruits with the skills that employers want known to be extremely high, he stresses that it is well worth employers developing such courses for their existing labour forces.
Moreover, despite the initiatives announced by Tony Blair, George W. Bush and various politicians since, education remains a huge problem even in supposedly more developed countries. On the one hand, large numbers of young people are over-educated or at least not suitably educated and in the process have incurred a debt burden that it is outpacing credit card debt and is itself a major drag on the economy. On the other, there remain areas where even access to basic education is severely limited. If business really is about purpose – as more and more of its leaders insist it is – this is surely as good a place as any to show it. In fact, with populist politicians seeking to play on the ignorance and fears of “ordinary people”, it is perhaps not going too far to suggest that it is in the public interest for business to intervene in this way.