A better way to learn: closing the skills gap with equality

Equality is possible and, more than ever before, affordable. Everyone benefits, business and worker both.

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When I was in college, I stumbled headlong into what we call the “skills gap,” which is shorthand for what happens when social inequality is applied to the economy. I didn’t necessarily go looking for it, but there it was. Pursuing a chemical engineering degree at Virginia Tech, I looked around and noticed something: I was one of the only females in my class.

This isn’t news: we’ve known for a long time that women are underrepresented in the sciences. It’s also not news that this lack of diversity in higher education affects minorities generally. Meanwhile, professional fields like technology suffer from a shortage of skilled workers to fill available positions. Social problems plus a growing need for workers equals the skills gap, which costs companies more than $1.3 trillion per year.

We wonder why there isn’t enough diverse, skilled talent to hire. Simple: there aren't enough that have graduated from college. And why? Because college is expensive.

With a 200% increase in tuition costs and a 163% increase in student debt, the economic landscape of higher education is a lot different than when I was looking around my college courses for female faces. And though costs are rising, 43% of college grads can’t find a job. The math doesn’t work. That’s terrible ROI no matter how you look at it.

So what’s the solution? How to solve the problems of inequality and the skills gap? A lesson straight from my old classes: if the existing system doesn’t work, build a new one.

Mind the gaps

According to Code.org, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computing jobs, but only 400,000 computer science students. Looking at it negatively, that’s a deficit of one million jobs. But look at it the other way: it represents a $500 billion opportunity — if we can find a way to fill that massive gap.

There’s another gap to keep in mind, though. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports wide disparities in the representation of women, Hispanics, and blacks in tech. Women are 47% of the overall workforce but only 18% of the tech workforce, while Hispanic or black tech workers account for 1%-2%.

Even for the most observant person, the way these inequalities come about can be subtle. Thousands of little life moments that add up to an advantage, or not. Most of us are too close to see how it plays out. But cartoonist Toby Morris gets at the insidious nature of privilege in a brilliant comic on how opportunities cascade in ways we can’t always appreciate. Correcting for these problems starts by working from some basic principles.

Alternative education vs. the skills gap

It goes without saying, but let’s say it again: Everyone should have equal access to education, no matter your race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, academic background, or physical abilities. There is a lot of untapped talent, but systemic inequalities prevent people from getting equal access. Our hiring standards even discriminate against people who have accredited college degrees.

The education system needs something — to correct inequalities, to close the skills gap. We need new models of alternative education to reach those who aren’t accessing the current system, and to account for the pace of change.

Because we’re all, regardless of sex, color, or creed, going to have to keep learning to keep up.

Consider the Pew Foundation’s State of American Jobs, which reports that a majority of workers in the labor force will need further training and new skills throughout their careers to stay current in the changing workplace.

Meanwhile, 65% of the kids in primary school today will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. So even if everyone could get into college today, that one-and-done system would be inadequate for keeping up with the pace of progress.

New school for everyone

Inequality and skills gap aside, the way we learn has changed. Because of the ubiquity and interactivity of technology, education is now:

  • Self-service and on-demand, not top-down or event-based
  • Personalized rather than one-size-fits-all
  • Designed for micro-learning in tiny modules, replacing multi-day courses
  • Skill- and competency-based: There are no awards for attendance

Education can be better, and cheaper, and more accessible. It can be gamified for a more intuitive experience and personalized for a more individual one. Anywhere there’s an internet connection, there’s a possible portal. Alternative education systems that live online and are self-guided are ideal for reaching the under-served communities, especially in tech. We’re in the fourth Industrial Revolution, a digital transformation that requires people with skills in artificial intelligence, app and mobile development, data science, and digital marketing. These jobs also, I should mention, command high salaries.

For their part, companies can learn to take a closer look at themselves and see where they could improve. One place to start is their marketing efforts. What pictures are they using? What speakers are on the rosters? What training programs can they put in place?

Equality is possible and, more than ever before, affordable. Everyone benefits, business and worker both. For workers, more opportunities. For businesses, the gift of a widened perspective. You will reach more customers, gain more perspectives, and have a happier culture. And everyone will learn from each other.

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