A shift from school-to-work pathways towards a "Skills Infrastructure" serving students and society
April 7, 2016
A preoccupation among many researchers and policymakers interested in the intertwined issues of skills, jobs, and higher education is the notion of "pathways." These are things like apprenticeships, traditional 4-year bachelor's or 2-year Associates degrees, internships, and so on - paths from school to work. Nowadays, of course, they often loop back into one another, so it's a pathway from school to work to school to work, as people seek additional training via online certificates or professional development as their careers develop. Identifying and improving these pathways is an important endeavor, particularly as many educational institutions from high schools to large research universities often fail to provide students with knowledge of the multiple pathways available to them. And in some cases and places, many pathways simply may not exist, though the Internet and widespread availability of online training/education is changing that.
When I first started the research program on higher education-workforce relations in Wisconsin, documenting these pathways was one of the goals. The idea was to interview heaps of faculty, administrators, career counselors, business owners, and hiring managers to see where tight connections between and among colleges and local businesses existed. And to a certain degree, that is precisely what we did, and what we're reporting in our academic papers and an upcoming book on the topic.
But what proved far more interesting, and I think, far more important, was not just the programmatic pathways that exist between and among school and work, but the other components of the system implicated in education and work that lead to (or work against) the development of well-rounded, highly skilled graduates that are in demand in the labor market, can obtain a living wage, and contribute to society. Taking a step back, and zooming outwards beyond the narrow scope of "pathways" forces us to consider other goals of the educational process while also acknowledging the complex, systemic nature of these phenomena.
This focus on systems is crucial, and it is where the metaphor of "pathways" falls apart, because the cultivation of multi-faceted skills and competencies in a learner is not just about their getting a job, and it is not simply about a bridge or a road from A (college) to B (a job). Implicated in the educational process and hiring decisions are a multitude of political, socio-cultural, economic, and programmatic factors that comprise a complex system of relations among organizations and people.
One of the key findings from our 3-year study in Wisconsin was that there exists a system of organizations and activities that do support the realization of what could be considered three primary goals of higher education - obtain a decent job/career, contribute to society and a healthy democracy, and serve workforce needs. (Of course, this leaves out that minor detail of personal growth and satisfaction, happiness, etc., which will be remedied in a publication near you!). Through conducting a combination of a root-cause analysis and a causal network analysis, the core variable leading to the realization of these goals was students with a full complement of what we call "21st century habits of mind" - a mouthful of jargon yes, but essentially this means students with cognitive abilities (technical knowledge, critical thinking), interpersonal skills (teamwork), and intrapersonal skills (self-regulated learning).
But the key question is - what leads to this type of student? For me, this is a central question that the concern over "pathways" overlooks. And what does cultivate these types of students is what we called the "skills infrastructure," or the 5 factors that comprise the system of education and workforce relations that does lead to an individual with 21st century habits of mind.
What is in this skills infrastructure? (1) Teachers (and trainers) proficient in experiential/active learning who are well paid and supported by their institutions/society, (2) Companies committed to providing training and professional development, (3) Career counseling and advising at all levels of the educational system, (4) Educational curricula that is content-rich, balanced (i.e., liberal arts/general ed) and experientially (real-world) focused, and (5) Partnerships between the educational and business sectors (including programmatic pathways like internships) that inform student trajectories, real-world curricula, and close-knit relations across fields.
Underlying all of this, however, is the hard to overlook influence of the State. That is, the government, which can support or impede this skills infrastructure. And as the wave of neoliberalism overtakes higher education as in states like Wisconsin or Kentucky, the systematic de-funding of higher ed, denigration of the teaching profession, and micro-management of student choice (welding not philosophy!) collectively serves to undermine this infrastructure. What is left standing, is a school to work pathway for a few select fields, possibly serving a few select companies, that ultimately do not serve the collective needs of students or society.