Squeeze on Higher Education

The de facto college degree is getting squeezed from two directions: employers requiring professionals to build new-age technical skills (where there is currently a skills gap); and typical students who are faced with the rising cost of a traditional college degree and must take on significant debt. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup poll, a very strong majority of business leaders say hiring managers consider ‘knowledge’ and ‘applied skills’ as ‘very important in hiring decisions’ –  84 and 79 percent respectively. (This is far greater than the ‘degree’ or ‘college attended’ in the same category, only 28 and 9 percent respectively.) [i] And in another Gallup poll, business leaders were asked if higher education graduates have the skills ‘my business needs’ and 33 percent disagreed and 34 percent were neutral to the statement.[ii] More professionals have the opportunity to build skills and knowledge their own way, and there are three reasons why: access to knowledge, online learning channels, and social media.

Squeeze on Higher Education
Squeeze on Higher Education

We are starting to understand that the ‘pure memorization’ of large volumes of information is less relevant, and therefore dramatically changes learning expectations. Every single piece of information is and will be published digitally and accessible via a network and the large majority of it can be found from a simple Google or Wikipedia search. I do not deny that understanding concepts and rationalizing require some memorization, especially when one must think on the spot. (But even simple reciting can and will be augmented by wearable devices.) For example, there are now freestyle chess competitions where computer programs and humans work together as a team; this takes away the burden of memorizing moves and scenarios, and lets human players concentrate on strategy and understanding their opponent.[iii]

Online learning is going to revolutionize the whole process of becoming educated in a few ways. First, for many disciplines, you participate in self-guided learning. You take a free online course from a top-notch professor in any subject and this lays the groundwork to acquire deeper knowledge or simply provides enough context to work with others in the field. Second, with asynchronous learning, you fit online course requirements into a busy schedule (which might include working at a job); you usually have to complete about two to three hours each week (any time or day) for two months.  Third, you spread the learning experience over a longer period of time. Traditionally speaking, you spend two to six consecutive years taking courses and then get a degree. However, considering how fast technical skills change, it might make more sense to take one or two courses throughout your career – spreading it out in a steady stream. I predict ‘continual learning’ becomes a requirement for most professions.

With social media web services, it is possible to stay current with the most recent developments of a subject and interact with experts in the field. There are no barriers in following ‘thought leaders’ in Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. Many of them are willing to share their most current work for free; generally speaking, the only requirement is to spread the word (by liking them) and/or participating in the discussion. After some time, with enough active participation, you start to develop your own insights and build a reputation. In fact, most employers canvas the Twitter activity of potential candidates (and some claim to be willing to make their hiring decision solely based on it).


[iii] Tyler Cowen. Average Is Over. Penguin Group (New York, 2013).

iv Derek Bok. Higher Education in America. Princeton University Press (Princeton, 2013); page 93.

Thread A Skill Set Throughout Your Life

As I learn more about the transition from secondary to higher education, I think about possible utility in introducing a Skills-Based Approach in primary and secondary education.  Previously I took for granted that it should be introduced in high school and used throughout a career. However, I think there are benefits with thinking in skill sets before high school – essentially threading a skill set throughout one’s life.

Threading Skills
Threading Skills

The earlier you identify core-competencies, the better. If you identify a STEM prodigy at an early age, you can guide their building of technical skills based on their talents. Introduce them to engineering, computer science, or biology in middle school. Supplement their learning in the classroom (often constrained by the advancement of its students collectively), with online learning based on their own personal capabilities.

Parents play a role in planning their child’s skill set. Three of the four career planning strategies of a skills-based approach are applicable for youngsters. First, identify career capital – something they can invest in throughout their life. Second, identify passions – expose children to different subjects in and out of the classroom and take an inventory of what sticks. Third, identify personality traits, interests, and values – have them take simple tests (perhaps even in the form of a game); the results are good predictors of an individual’s personal and professional development.

Build a foundation, and then apply active learning. There is a transition between having students memorizing things – vocabulary, math fundamentals, and grammar – and promoting their ability to problem solve, conceptualize, and reason.  Educators argue the latter transferable skills are critical to being successful later in life and many of the new age teaching methods are rooted in challenging students to think. (There was a wonderful story in Wired about a teacher who adopted one of these new-age teaching methods and got his class from a downtrodden Mexican school to score among the top in the country’s standardized tests.[i])  Contrarily, a teacher wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about how memorization still has its place, and, barring the geniuses, this makes sense: most of us have to learn grammar and vocabulary before being effective readers and writers.[ii]

A skill set with an assessment of the level of expertise with skills facilitates the process of active and personalized learning. (Again, educators are trying to build personalized learning into their lesson plans.) Teachers and parents review the same skill sets and design effective learning plans, which include building transferable skills (and related soft skills) – making them more transparent in a student’s development. In addition, the skill set transcends across grade levels so there is a more fluent platform to assess a student’s progress.

The objective is to prepare an individual for higher education, rather than for employment.  Higher education is already playing a more active role by mining for talented students, designing high school curriculums, and inspiring future prospects.

All of the suggestions proposed in the building stage are applicable to a secondary education student. Probably the most important ones include: setting the stage with new teachers, finding a mentor, and using assessments to track progress.

Learn more about a Skills-Based Approach by visiting the website, following it on Twitter, and/or purchasing the book. The methodology is centered on the development of a skill set throughout a career (and, as this blog suggests, your life). There are four stages: planning, building, presenting, and validating. Each stage has proposed ways to achieve its objectives.


[i] Joshua Davis. “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses,” Wired, October 15, 2013.

[ii] David G. Bonagura Jr. “What’s 12 x 11? Um, Let Me Google That,” WSJ, October 30, 2013.

In her book Reinventing You, Dorrie Clark refers to a skill set as a “precious commodity”. (I like the term). It has a similar connotation to Seth Godin’s linchpin: someone who is indispensable. As you move through a career, differentiate your skill set from others within a predefined ecosystem.

Original Image © Depositphoto/YokoDesign #27568263

Apprenticeships, an Effective Way to Teach Technology

Apprenticeships might be a fast way to teach aspiring professionals the technical skills needed for technology jobs.  When I think of apprenticeships, I think of their origin (what I learned about in history class in grade school): protégés learning highly coveted skills such as printing, tailoring, and accounting from masters during the Middle Ages. There is an infrastructure for apprenticeships in Europe, so many of them exist there today. I think apprenticeships might be a very effective way to teach more modern-day technology skills, such as programming in a particular software language (ASP .Net), designing graphics in Adobe Photoshop, and networking hardware and software with Cisco products. One startup, Enstitute, has a long-term vision of their apprenticeships: “become an alternative to college” for aspiring professionals who think a college degree is too expensive, inefficient, or unnecessary. Moreover, they are targeting the intelligent, ambitious minded professionals. [1]

I would like to emphasize that in each of my examples above I describe a precise technology, because this distinction is necessary. It highlights the major advantage apprenticeships have over college courses: most college courses cannot teach precise technologies (they move too quickly for planned curriculum) and apprenticeships do through application (learning by doing). This is why colleges promote internships – a pseudo version of apprenticeships.  In addition, a well established mentorship can have a similar effect – a mentor passes on his methods to an employee.

In an article Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need, Peter Cappelli discusses how employers are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates. He blames it on employers for not properly investing in training to teach the necessary technical skills. And one of his suggestions is to “bring back aspects of the apprenticeship.”

Forty-seven percent of employers blame prospects’ lack of technical skills (for finding potential candidates).[2]

Apprenticeships fit perfectly with a Skills Based Approach. The idea of building the exact skills that will be utilized in a job is efficient and practical. Included with apprenticeships are assessments on how well you are learning skills. Furthermore, skills will be validated by references who can give you recommendations.

Instead of getting a paper diploma, the (Enstitute) fellows will graduate with a portfolio of skills they acquired… in addition to 5 to 10 recommendations.


[1] Hannak Seligson, “The Apprentices Of a Digital Age.” Wall Street Journal, May 5th 2013.

[2] Peter Cappelli, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need, ” Wall Street Journal, October 24th, 2011

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