Why Business Leaders Need To Take On The Education Revolution

Have you hired someone straight out of college in the last decade? If you have, it comes as no shock that today’s education system simply isn’t creating job-ready employees. Far from the differentiator it once was, the college diploma has become an expensive check box in the HR process.

Let’s cut to the chase: You need experience to be relevant in today’s demanding job market. Period.

Most graduates, regardless of their progression within higher education, are simply not presented with the opportunity to learn and exercise skills employers really need. According to a study by McKinsey and Company, 72 percent of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work. Here’s the kicker: only 42 percent of employers agree. The overwhelming majority of these employees will need to learn on their own to close the skills gap.

So what can we, as business leaders, do to make sure the workforce of the future is getting what they need? It’s a matter of acknowledging the problem, realizing what this means for businesses and actually doing something about it.

The Problem: Workers Aren’t Coming To Interviews Equipped With The Skills They Need

I’ve been in the tech industry for well over a decade, and in the business world for twice that. When hiring, we often find ourselves looking for candidates with a particular set of both hard and soft skills. Many of these skills revolve around problem solving, time management and creativity — on top of a ton of real-world experience. We’re looking for a business-side Liam Neeson in the Taken movies: a very particular set of skills.

The problem is that these types of skills simply aren’t the ones you’d get in school. As Harvard Professor David Edwards wrote for Wired Magazine, in today’s system “we ‘learn,’ and after this we ‘do.’ We go to school and then we go to work. This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in business today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.”

When candidates don’t have the skills we want, we don’t hire them — so they don’t pick up any new skills. It’s a vicious cycle we need to break.

Why Should Today’s Business Leaders Care?

You want skilled candidates filling your open positions, right? Then this should matter to you. We can’t rely on the systems currently in place to solve this problem on their own. Universities move at a glacial pace. The most common tools in the workplace (like Google, database systems or analytics software) are seldom seen in the classroom.

When a new employee encounters them in the workplace, they have no manual, context or past experience for learning how to thrive with these tools they’ve never seen. Teaching to test, rather than to skills, extinguishes desirable traits like creativity and innovative thinking in that student. Over the years, these traits disappear. The result is an education system that stifles the minds of today’s youth, destroying the creativity students need for success.

Rather than generalization, we must push for specialization by inclination.

As successful leaders, we need to make ourselves the solution. We are the teachers our students truly need, the successful practitioners who excel at the positions those students want to obtain. Rather than generalization, we must push for specialization by inclination. If a student is naturally inclined to create awareness and understanding, why aren’t we pairing him or her with a successful individual who will foster those skill sets, rather than muting such a coveted trait?

Employers need to hop the fence and help educators build programs that encourage creative thinking. We’ve made failure a positive thing in business settings. Now, let’s figure out how to nurture that skill in the classroom.

I recently participated in a standards validation committee for the Arizona Department of Education to make sure learning requirements for students in sales and marketing were up to date and correct. I was blown away and, to be honest, a little embarrassed by what was currently being taught. Even if a student earned an A+ on all the current skills, I wouldn’t hire them. They just aren’t the right skills.

That’s why I’ve devoted much time and experience to creating a curriculum that actually teaches what I need my best people to know. Sure, it took billable hours away from my day. But I’m invested in making sure experience and innovation become skills required of each student at graduation. I want graduates to be people I’d hire.

So I’m making sure creativity, a mostly suppressed trait in today’s system, is squarely at the root of most of what these students will learn. Whether it’s solving a problem or completely changing the perspective that understood the problem, creativity is key.

It’s Up To Us As Business Leaders To Make A Change

It’s clear at this point that we, as leaders, can’t simply wait around for the tide of education to change on its own. We have the experiences, expertise and resources to make a shift — and as such, we have to do something besides whine about how no skilled candidates are coming our way.

A lot of this can start before a student ever graduates. We’ve all heard it before: We need to get involved. Hire high school students for projects in your office. Let them use real tools. If you want an intern to learn more than how to get coffee, you have to let them do more than make coffee runs.

These days, nearly every office has some sort of database that needs to be reviewed. Have them start there. Yes, it’s boring work. But it’s also essential to gain familiarity with technology and working with data — and it’s something they’d never do in school. These are your future employees, after all.

Trying to insulate students from failure makes them afraid to take risks.

You’re also going to need to make this skill shift a priority within your existing workforce. Many companies say they have mentorship programs, but don’t invest time or money into it. Encourage your highest achievers to become teachers. It’s not beneath them to work with the newest hires or interns, and you as a leader shouldn’t force them to cram this in around client work. Be willing to invest in training for your existing employees, too. Learning is something that should never cease.

Educators and employers alike also need to stop looking at single mistakes as catastrophic failures. This is a big one. Mistakes happen. Every day, multiple times per day. Today’s top companies view them as critical learning experiences. Facebook’s now famous “move fast and break things” motto still isn’t welcome in academia. Trying to insulate students from failure makes them afraid to take risks. As anyone in modern-day learning and business will agree, failure is the best recipe for success.

We must fail if we are going to learn and grow — a branch gets stronger at the broken parts, as the motivational speakers say. Make sure your workplace welcomes failure, on resumes and in day-to-day innovation.

Whether you’re a company leader, hiring manager, expert or a job candidate, you have a stake in addressing this issue. The education revolution is upon us. The only problem is that it should have kicked off two decades ago. We’re overdue for change, and change is hard. We need the creativity we’ve been stifling for more than a century to destroy the system, before it finally destroys us.