Monday, October 3, 2016

Education Is Not Enough

I just finished reading the latest white paper from Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting, this one written with Shelly Alcorn of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, entitled "The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm." If you'd like a copy, you can download it here.

Dealing with the fundamental thesis of the white paper--that there is a crisis brewing in the global education-to-employment system, and that associations are uniquely positioned to provide useful solutions--is a massive undertaking. And indeed, fully half of the document is dedicated to laying out the case for action--from increasing student debt levels to increasing misalignment between what is being taught in post secondary education and what skill sets are sought by employers.

I'm not going to dispute any of the cited facts or figures. Indeed, I hear a lot of supporting comments from my own members, who are just as frustrated with the quality of community college and university graduates in their industry as those quoted and described in the white paper. What I find much more interesting is the white paper's prescriptions for what associations should do about it.

Fix it.

With an educational system that is being disrupted, college students graduating with degrees that fail to provide them practical job skills, and more adult and nontraditional learners than ever, associations stand at a crossroads. There are enormous needs we can meet: creating high-quality, competency based education; fostering social learning; and providing clear pathways to employment for students, the long-term employed, returning veterans, or those individuals who are about to see their jobs significantly affected by the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. It's a big opportunity--and a big challenge. In what follows, we offer some practical advice about how to start meeting it.

In other words, it's time for associations to step-up and solve these problems. What follows this paragraph in the white paper is indeed some practical advice, including:

  • Conduct ongoing in-depth workforce analysis;
  • Clearly define actual competencies needed, including soft skills;
  • Clearly define career pathways;
  • Consider alternative delivery methods and new technologies;
  • Professionalize content development and delivery;
  • Provide quality certification programs; and
  • Create effective alliances.

It's a good list. My association has been working on the "workforce issue" for about twenty years now (nine under my leadership), and in that time, we have taken all of these steps either directly or in partnership with other organizations. But in my experience, the list remains incomplete because it deals only with the first half of the "education-to-employment system."

I've recently adopted some new terminology in my association when talking about this problem. Yes, I generally say, we must support and deliver "education programs"--courses, curriculum and certifications meant to educate more people in the competencies and soft skills required by our industry. But we can't stop there. We must also support and deliver "connection programs"--websites, career fairs and conferences that are designed to bring hiring managers from our member companies in contact with the people being impacted by our education programs.

The white paper is a good read, with real practical advice. But don't focus solely on education programs when trying to address the challenges it effectively describes. There's no guarantee that the people you educate are going to find their way into your industry. If your experience is anything like ours, the pipeline you think you're building will prove leakier than you expect.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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