As a leading expert and true innovator related to the future of learning and work, Dr. Michelle Weise has had the unique opportunity to engage with a multitude of stakeholder viewpoints surrounding the third sector of education.
She is currently the entrepreneur-in-residence and a senior advisor at Imaginable Futures and author of several books, including her most recent, Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet.
In this second episode in our series on the surge of the third sector, Celisa talks with return guest Michelle about the tremendous challenges and opportunities that exist surrounding the third sector of education. They also discuss the importance of breaking down silos, the need for a robust data infrastructure, and why the third sector needs to pay more attention to the non-consumers of higher education.
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[00:18] – Intro and background info about Michelle.
[01:27] – You and I are talking as part of a podcast series we’re doing on the third sector of education, the sector made up of providers who serve adult lifelong learners after they’ve finished their formal degree-granting education. Where do you interact or have you interacted with that third sector of education, professionally, and also personally if you’d like?
Michelle talks about how she’s had the chance to really engage with the third sector from a multitude of stakeholder viewpoints throughout her career.
She worked as a college professor, for an ed tech startup, and also in a think tank that was devoted to disruptive innovation (Clayton Christensen’s theories).
She was able to put those theories into practice by building an innovation lab for Southern New Hampshire University, which is a huge online open access institution.
Michelle then went on to work for Strada Education Network and helped build their Strada Institute for the Future of Work, with a focus on vulnerable populations and how to ensure large group of working-class Americans aren’t left behind as we build toward the future.
So she’s really been able to work with all of the different kinds of stakeholder groups, trying to enable more, and different, kinds of pathways for very different kind of learners than maybe what most people expect.
Michelle says we tend to think of those traditional 18–24-year old’s, but a lot of her career has been spent thinking about everyone outside of, or older than that group.
Awareness of Other Providers in the Third Sector
[03:36] – The third sector of education is made up of many different types of providers—trade and professional associations, corporate learning and development, academic continuing education, training companies, solo eduprenuers. Imagine a continuum labeled hodgepodge at one end and partnership at the other. What’s the level of awareness providers have of the other types of providers in the third sector? Where on the continuum is the third sector as a whole? And where should it be?
Michelle admits this is something that has been nagging at her for many years because in many of her roles she’s been privileged to get to assess the landscape of a lot of these different providers.
When she was working with service members, she got a real view into a lot of different online, post-secondary education.
And when she was working for the Christensen Institute, she got a lot of insights into all of the for-profit, alternative learning providers out there—those entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs.
She admits that one of the hardest things for her to see was the duplication of efforts—there are so many incredible organizations and groups and services out there that are solving for the same problem, sometimes completely overlapping in their areas of interest.
But they have no awareness of some of these other groups that are out there doing the same work.
Michelle says she’s actually spent a lot of time doing behind-the-scenes matchmaking of different entrepreneurs and organizations, trying to pull them together just so that they are aware of one another.
She thinks this is an issue that exists more broadly in this sector, which is that we have a lot of incredible groups who are building in silos or building in parallel to one another.
And even across your first, second and third sectors, if you think about K-12 and post-secondary education and everything after, Michelle points out these are very separate systems that don’t do a great job of speaking across those boundaries.
One of those things that we’ve realized over time is that we cannot continue to innovate in this way. It doesn’t make sense to constantly reinvent the wheel. And so how do we behave differently? How do we work more as those kinds of partners and coalition partners and change our ways of doing things to make sure that we are functioning more like interdependent systems—things that are inextricably tied to one another?
As we think about the pandemic’s role in shaping the economy and how things lie today, Michelle says this is the big opportunity ahead—to think about how we actually move from those silos, to true partnership and collation building.
The Growth of the Third Sector
[07:34] – Our view at Leading Learning is that the third sector has grown in size and importance in the past few decades. If you agree with that assessment, what’s contributing to that growth?
Michelle agrees and references data about the state of workforce technologies from LearnLaunch, who estimated that between 2015 and 2018 there were 250 brand new companies that were backed by venture capital, creating an almost 2.9 billion dollar marketplace within just a few years.
So she says we do see this magnificent growth going on.
Part of the reason she thinks we’re seeing that is because of the incredible noise in the marketplace.
She references a report from Credential Engine, which says we have over 730 thousand unique credentials flooding our educational and labor markets.
And even though you would think this offers a lot of options for learners, Michelle says it actually just creates so much friction between job seekers and companies that are seeking to hire talent.
Since it’s not necessarily getting any easier, you see this growth of providers that are trying to create more pre-hire assessments or bring more clarity and transparency to highlighting a person’s skills. We’ve realized, as an entire network of stakeholders, that just always relying on a degree as a proxy for talent is not sufficient.
So you see all these different ways in which innovators and organizations are trying to make more direct connections between job seekers and employers.
And that’s where she thinks you see this tremendous growth happening.
Major Opportunities for the Third Sector
[09:49] – When you think about the third sector, what do you see as some of the major opportunities for players in that sector?
One huge opportunity, Michelle suggests, is to reimagine the role of on-the-job training.
She references data from Peter Cappelli where he looked at the number of hours that we used to devote towards engaging our workers in building new skills.
It showed that we’ve went from 2.5 weeks per year in 1979, all the way down to only 11 hours per year by 1995 (and we can only imagine how much more that has been reduced from 1995 to now).
Michelle points out that all of that on-the-job training is not necessarily geared toward training our workers for new and emerging and better job. It’s actually more risk mitigation, compliance training, and these sorts of boxes that we need to check off.
The real opportunity ahead is to think through how in the world are we going to take our existing workforce, better understand the skills that they bring to the table, and help them skill up for the jobs of the future. The way in which we’ve engaged in the talent wars thus far is just not sustainable. It is this constant look outside of the company for talent instead of looking inward and trying to assess who we have today right at our fingertips that we can help acquire the right skills just to make it into those next jobs that we need to fill.
So looking internally and getting a real reassessment of how we think about investing in our incumbent workforce, she thinks is a huge opportunity for this entire space. And to think through, how do we do this better?
Major Threats Facing the Third Sector
[11:56] – On the flip side of the coin then, what do you see as the major threats facing the third sector of education?
Michelle thinks the most critical, limiting factor is that we have not figured out how to account for time.
She says if there’s anything this pandemic has shown us is how important it is to be able to buy time to do other activities.
And a lot of people in our system are not earning a living wage in order to buy services that gain your time back.
As you look at these multi hundred million dollar initiatives within some of even the most forward-thinking employers thinking about upskilling, Michelle says what they haven’t actually solved for is when those workers are actually going to find the time to upskill.
The implicit expectation is always that this person is going to go home after work and figure out a time to build those skills on their own. It’s always this individual burden and we don’t figure out ways to carve out time in the flow of the workday to build those skills for our employees. And that really needs to change. If we really want to get serious about solving for intergenerational mobility, we really have to think about this issue of time poverty.
The Future of the Third Sector
[13:31] – When you think about the future of the third sector of education, what do you see? Are you anticipating continued growth? Are you seeing potential for disruption, whether that’s positive or negative disruption? Waning importance, something else, how would you characterize that future of the third sector?
Michelle discusses how we’re hitting a wall in terms of our traditional ways of doing things.
For quite some time, we have been relying on this phenomenon of up-credentialing, where we keep asking people for degrees.
So we put in degree requirements for jobs that really used to never require a degree, and over time those degree requirements have gone up.
We’ve been asking for more and more advanced degrees and there just comes a limit to how many degrees we can ask for.
We’re moving into Master’s degree territory when some of these roles never needed a degree in the first place.
Michelle explains that what you’re seeing is the lack of signaling power of some of our credentials.
Employers don’t know how to sift through their resumes, they don’t know how to make sense of all these different kinds of factors.
That obviously can’t continue, so that’s why she says you hear a lot more language these days around this notion of moving away from pedigree, or where you learned your knowledge, to thinking about skills and moving toward skills-based hiring.
And that’s partly because we cannot just continue to up-credential and we have to get much more precise about skills.
Michelle thinks the other piece of this is that we’re hitting a wall in terms of these kinds of talent wars that we’re engaging in where we’re always trying to find this specific spot talent that has the precise experience that we are looking for (as opposed to enabling our existing workforce or pools of talent).
She says that we really are going to have to rethink our motivations for leveraging these sorts of practices.
And that’s an exciting shift toward skills-based hiring, but we will also need better ways of surfacing those skills too.
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Thriving in the Third Sector
[18:15] – What words of advice do you have for those in the third sector about what they might be able to do to help them really thrive in that future that will come to be and this fact that we’re potentially hitting these various walls? What can they do to try to break past that wall and to succeed and thrive?
Michelle explains that one of the core pieces of this shift towards skills-based hiring is a way for us to surface the skills of a job seeker or surface the skills of your workforce.
She says you’d be surprised by how many major employers there are who regularly complain about not being able to understand precisely what their people can do.
They have names and job titles, but they don’t have that granular understanding of what kinds of skills, capabilities, and assets each of those individuals brings to the table.
So as a result, they don’t know how to look at their existing workforce in order to shape them for the jobs of the future.
And oftentimes the instinct of employers is to look externally when trying to find precise talent, when in fact there could be many people right at their fingertips who are 70% of the way there in terms of the kinds of transferable skills they need.
But she says we just don’t have the mechanisms to do that.
However, Michelle shares that there are really exciting innovations and artificial intelligence platforms that are trying to do some of these surfacing of skills and trying to illuminate skills gaps for people as they try to imagine pathways for themselves.
They are also connecting those skills gaps to learning providers in the area or in the region that might be able to help them fill those gaps.
As we think about more mature learners having to pivot and transition to new work, Michelle says we not only need that way of surfacing the skills that sound very marketable in the workplace, but we also need a way for job seekers to recognize that there’s so much incredible informal learning that happens.
So it’s important to recognize that they have these kinds of “hidden” credentials within that haven’t been formally recognized by a degree or some certificate/certification.
For example, skills that have been acquired through caring for their children, an older parent or grandparent, or even driving a truck across the country thousands of times.
There are all these different kinds of skills that we have, but we haven’t learned how to surface them and articulate them. And that translation process is something this third sector really has an opportunity to facilitate and help learners and workers translate their skills into the language of the marketplace.
Michelle further explains that there just isn’t a ton of transparency.
Even as we think about internal mobility within a company, it’s really hard for most workers to understand the clear routes toward advancement—we don’t do a great job of even providing those internal mobility pathways.
And then as we think about career trajectories outside of the boundary of a company and across fields, across different companies, and across state lines, Michelle points out that we really don’t do a great job of making those pathways clear.
So one of the exciting things as we think about harnessing some of this big data is now we can actually see some of those trajectories and can start illuminating them a little bit more clearly for job seekers.
See our related episode, Forging Open Pathways with Wayne Skipper.
Focusing on Non-Consumers
[23:29] – Many learning businesses are focused on their customers, their members, their learners, and I think that’s understandable, those are the people paying for and accessing their portfolio of offerings. But I know that part of what you’re interested in and passionate about is making education work for learners who are often left behind and left out by traditional approaches and traditional players. So would you talk a little bit about non-consumers in the context of lifelong learning? Who are they and what might a learning business stand to gain by focusing on non-consumers?
Michelle first clarifies that the term “non-consumers” is from Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation and it’s just a term for the people whose alternative is really nothing at all.
She shares an example of this is when Toyota started to come into the American car market, and they produced a little car called the Corona.
They were not producing it for the existing customers and consumers of cars.
Rather, this was made for people whose alternative to a car was really nothing at all (it was walking or riding a bus).
So even though this car was not as high-quality as some of the existing options on the market, these non-consumers were actually perfectly delighted with the quality of these cars because it was better than nothing at all.
As we think about higher education today, Michelle says there’s a fascinating sort of phenomenon that’s happening where over the last 60-70 years, we’ve gone from having about 2,000 institutions to at one point over 4,700 degree granting institutions (we’re now down to about 4,300).
We no longer have enough traditional learners to fill those seats, and the number of high school grads moving into post-secondary education has really dropped over time (and it’s really going to drop dramatically in the mid ’20s to ’30s).
Michelle explains that non-consumers are people who might have already gone to college and dropped out, some of the 36 million with some college and no degree.
These could be people who only have a high school degree and absolutely no post-secondary education.
But these are people who could really stand to increase their earnings by acquiring some sort of education beyond what they have today.
And as we think about non-consumers, Michelle says our traditional institutions are not doing a great job of inviting those people in.
For all the different kinds of organizations that are in this third sector, there’s a real opportunity to think about meeting these specific learners where they are. These are not folks who are looking for a bundled four-year experience with a great sports team. These are people who are looking for precise, targeted educational pathways that have signaling power that an employer will understand and know how to make sense of that learning experience. These are short-burst human and technical skills-building programs that move people along very quickly—and cost effectively—into a much better opportunity.
So that’s how Michelle thinks we should be thinking about this population of people whose alternative is nothing at all and who are currently being left behind by the inadequacies of our education and workforce infrastructure.
The Need for a Robust Data Infrastructure
[28:08] – In your most recent book, Long Life Learning: Preparing For Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet, you argue that we need a new learning ecosystem and that ecosystem needs to incorporate five guiding principles: it has to be navigable, supportive, targeted, integrated and transparent. And you write that, “The connective tissue that unites these five guiding principles is a more robust data infrastructure.”
My sense from reading this is that a more robust data infrastructure is really key to getting beyond those silos and in getting to that meaningful collaboration in the third sector of education. Am I reading you correctly, does that seem like a fair assessment in terms of the role of that data infrastructure?
Michelle says yes and that it’s a foundational element to thinking about a better functioning ecosystem.
She notes that her use of the term ecosystem is very deliberate.
And in higher education and workforce, none of our systems speak to one another.
They are all deeply siloed and there are all kinds of things that get in the way of connecting important data that would help all of us make better decisions in the future.
Michelle discusses how one fundamental aspect of bringing people together around a shared common agenda (like re-skilling those that have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic) is that you need to look at the same set of data.
So as un-sexy as it may be, she stresses that this piece of connecting data and doing the important work of plumbing and creating data trust and data infrastructure is deeply important.
She references BrightHive as an organization out there that is doing this kind of data infrastructure work reiterating how it’s foundational for all of us to build these new coalitions that will behave differently in the future.
Breaking Down Silos
[31:11] – Do you have any advice on concrete actions that a learning business might take to bring about that less siloed third sector, whether that’s through exploring formal partnerships or data trusts or something else?
Michelle shares that she serves on the board for SkillUp, a coalition of different funders, alternative learning providers, as well as open access institutions.
And different groups are bringing to bare stuff that they have been building, but they realized that alone it’s not going to be as powerful as actually bringing it into this shared platform experience.
She says that the exciting thing about the urgency around reskilling people and helping them survive during this real challenge to our economy, is that we’ve realized we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.
We actually need to alter our behavior and create this sort of shared repository.
So this is one step and Michelle acknowledges it’s a really difficult mindset shift for a lot of organizations to move from being leaders/thought leaders in the space to being servant leaders—or maybe even nameless and not getting the kind of recognition that they’re used to getting.
This is a very different kind of way of engaging in the space but it’s clear that we cannot continue to make all of this burden of skill development the onus of the individual. Right now it’s so clearly unjust in the way that all of us have to navigate a job transition alone and scramble and fumble our way through it. There’s isn’t a clear way to move seamlessly from one job to the next and we really have to alter this because the number of job changes that we can expect in the future are only going to increase…We need to make that less idiosyncratic and less the exception to the rule and more the rule. Something that is clearly, easily accessible, seamless feeling and understandable.
The Role of Learning Businesses in Helping Learners Navigate the Third Sector
[34:35] – Do you think an individual learning business has a responsibility, or an opportunity, to help learners navigate the broader third sector? And what might that help look like?
Michelle does think it’s time that the onus spreads a little bit more fairly beyond just the individual job seeker onto the education providers who need to have some more skin in the game. And need to have some responsibility for the outcomes of their learners.
And there has to be some shared responsibility around training too.
Employers cannot continue to retreat from training and expect these fully oven-ready people who are ready to contribute on day one.
She explains that if we really do want to give more people (particularly those who may not have a traditional post-secondary degree), more of a fair shot in the labor market, we need to figure out ways to mitigate risk for employers who do actually want to widen their talent funnels and diversify their talent pools.
Because if you actually do remove those degree requirements, you get to a much more diverse learner and worker population.
But there needs to be a way for the employer to test out and allow for these workers and learners to prove what they know.
And she notes there’s some really exciting developments going on in different kinds of outsourced apprenticeship models where you use short on-ramp programs.
Many of these groups that are building these alternative on-ramps are partnering directly with employers so they can let the employer test out these newly trained people to see whether they will truly be able to do the work.
Michelle says this really does allow for that de-risking of a really challenging hiring practice where so many things can go wrong because we’re just holding our finger to the wind praying that we’re hiring the right talent versus performance-based or mastery-based demonstration of those skills.
She sees this kind of validation of skills as a real opportunity for the different kinds of providers in this space to come together and to behave differently.
And if we want to be action oriented in terms of diversifying and making our hiring more equitable, we need some of these mechanisms in place.
Check out our related episodes on the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion with DEI strategist, Shilpa Alimchandani:
- Getting Conscious About Bias with Howard Ross and Shilpa Alimchandani
- Diversity and Disruption with Shilpa Alimchandani
Unbiased Hiring Through Demonstration of Skills
[38:21] – You are touching on something I wanted to ask about which is this idea that if we move to more blinded, more skills-based hiring practices that that’s going to help organizations really deliver on the promise of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives, and really live that out in a practical way.
I’m wondering how providers in the third sector who want to help that hiring be as unbiased as possible, can do and how can they avoid having their credential— whether it’s a certificate, certification, digital badge, etc.—become like so many degrees are today—just that proxy signal that doesn’t necessarily provide an accurate view of the holder’s ability or competence or knowledge?
Michelle talks about how it comes down to offering different kinds of ways for job seekers to prove what they know.
There are interesting new developments going on in AR and VR, where people can demonstrate their knowledge through simulated environments.
There are also different kinds of pre-hire assessments that are promising that can really help us better understand a person’s curiosity or critical thinking processes.
But she says the challenge is the number of pre-hire assessments that are out there today so it’s really hard for hiring managers and employers to make sense of what is truly valid and what is not.
It’s also hard for employers to articulate exactly the skills they want for the future.
So another piece that we need to figure out is trying to get more researchers and academics involved in the basic learning science around these principles that we say are so critical for the future of work.
Michelle reiterates that we some promising seeds of innovation budding on the margins, but we don’t have a systemic way of being able to identify that talent.
And so without recourse to anything truly reliable yet, we’re just sort of sticking to the old ways of doing things.
[42:29] – Wrap-Up
Michelle Weise is author of Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet, which is recommended reading for learning businesses and which you can find through Amazon and other online booksellers. You can find Michelle online at riseanddesign.io, and you can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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[44:14] – Sign off
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