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As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event The School-to-Work Transition will take place from 1430–1600 CET on 8 February 2023. Register your place now!
Imagine you are a student completing a course of study this spring: how would you feel about the prospect of entering the workforce?
At all levels of education, students today face unprecedented challenges:
- Most of their studies took place during the pandemic, which negatively affected learning and diminished opportunities to gain social capital through scholastic experiences;
- They are graduating into the early stages of a global economic contraction where industry giants have unceremoniously laid off skilled workers for over a year;
- The world of hybrid and remote work has expanded the hiring options of employers, who can source lower-cost talent from afar rather than recruit graduates located near their offices;
- In countries like the United States, college graduates are competing for jobs at a moment where degrees are waning as proxies for ability, with employers now questioning whether a once-minimum requirement now represents an exclusionary “paper ceiling” to be dismantled.
It all feels a bit “bait-and-switch”, as the traditional goal posts of career success have rapidly given way to an ambiguous and uncharted landscape. Anxiety about entering the workforce is normal; but according to a recent Qualtrics survey on school-to-work transitions, 40% of students felt unprepared for the job market, lacked confidence about how to approach the hiring process, and were unsure how to market their skills effectively.
Despite learners pursuing more education...a seeming disconnect exists between the learning environment and the skills needed to excel on the job.
Students aren’t alone: most people have trouble identifying their own skills and translating their value to employers; and yet, it’s a muscle we must all learn to build. We are entering a world of work that is changing structurally, becoming less aligned to degrees, jobs, and career paths, and instead becoming more fragmented, dynamic and skills-based. Individuals and organisations will need new tools to navigate this terrain.
This paradigm shift constitutes an acute challenge for the broader workforce ecosystem, which evolved in response to 20th century industry growth and now struggles to keep pace in the “without jobs” world. Despite learners pursuing more education, and the buzzy virality of skills-as-currency amongst corporate thought leaders, a seeming disconnect exists between the learning environment and the skills needed to excel on the job.
More on the Forum Network: The Need for Future Competencies: What can the analysis of online job ads tell us? by Eric Thode, Director, Sustainable Social Market Economies Program, Bertelsmann Stiftung
Student anxiety over navigating the job market is matched by employers’ dissatisfaction with the relevance of skills supplied by today’s graduates, as well as their skepticism of education’s ability to adapt its pedagogy to the demands of a digital workforce. Meanwhile, educators fault employers for not specifying the skills they need, and many in academia resist the transactionalism of prioritising the requirements of hiring managers over broader educational aims.
Students today are caught within a disrupted system that has yet to (and may never) fully calibrate, and they wrestle with the role of institutions to support them. Respondents to the Qualtrics survey identified those they perceived as responsible for supporting their school-to-work transition. They viewed government to be accountable for providing the resources to learn, educators for teaching the skills needed to be successful and—rightly or wrongly—assigned responsibility to themselves(!) for navigating one of the most tumultuous labour markets in history.
We may all be singing the same song with conviction—skills, employment, opportunity—but our melodies are clashing.
But is it fair for students to shoulder this burden? If not, who is empowered to help the emerging workforce launch successfully?
The answer cuts across the workforce ecosystem, including employers, industry advocates, educators, and workforce intermediaries. While the intended outcome of their collective efforts is a healthy labour market, each player has a distinct profession with its own tribal knowledge. For most of the last century, the economy was static enough to accommodate their quasi-independence; but in the future of work, increasingly interdependent systems must synchronise more intentionally.
To construct a metaphor, these players all sing the chorus of “skills”; however, the present ecosystem performs as if each vocal part is modulated to a different key. We may all be singing the same song with conviction—skills, employment, opportunity—but our melodies are clashing.
This dissonance is troubling for several reasons:
- Labour supply and demand are currently out of balance, with entire categories of skill undersupplied by the labour market;
- When students fail to connect their learning to the labour market, they risk underemployment or unemployment upon completion, both of which have a persistent negative effect on career trajectories and lifetime earnings;
- When the connective tissue between learning, skills and employment degrades, so does the perceived legitimacy of the institutions that enable it, leading society away from the culture of adaptive lifelong learning needed to thrive in the future of work
Our ecosystem’s performance isn’t getting rave reviews right now—but what if we could align the efforts of the players, transposing discordant tones into a rich, tightly orchestrated harmony?
Labour market data and the language of skills may hold the answer. Skills intelligence uses big data to enable cross-contextual translation and interoperability of skills across disparate ecosystems, with the potential to bring labour economies into balance. By allowing each player to interpret contextualised skills that are translated through the real-time global labour market, their incentives can be aligned against a “single version of truth” that encourages them to act in concert.
Ambivalence about the future need not mean sacrificing agency—skills intelligence can help students entering the workforce leverage their skills and feel confident navigating the professional world.
Such an approach allows each player to focus on core capabilities (operating a profitable business, nurturing economic development, educating students, learning new skills), while reading from the same (metaphorical) sheet of music. Additional benefits include greater fluidity of skills definitions, timelier labour market insights, escaping the limitations of taxonomic or sectoral orthodoxy and better predictive insights about how the labour market is evolving in real-time. They may seem novel today, but these capabilities will become table stakes in the world of “work without jobs”.
Ambivalence about the future need not mean sacrificing agency—skills intelligence can help students entering the workforce leverage their skills and feel confident navigating the professional world. As an ecosystem, skills intelligence can help workforce leaders make progress towards shared goals, while giving grace to the lengthier work of systems change and reinvention. For today’s students—which, let’s be honest, includes all of us—that’s a vision worth pursuing.
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