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Technological change demands stronger and more continuous connections between education and employment, says Andrew Palmer. The faint outlines of such a system are now emerging

Lifelong learning Economist

THE RECEPTION AREA contains a segment of a decommissioned Underground train carriage, where visitors wait to be collected. The surfaces are wood and glass. In each room the talk is of code, web development and data science. At first sight the London office of General Assembly looks like that of any other tech startup. But there is one big difference: whereas most firms use technology to sell their products online, General Assembly uses the physical world to teach technology. Its office is also a campus. The rooms are full of students learning and practising code, many of whom have quit their jobs to come here. Full-time participants have paid between £8,000 and £10,000 ($9,900-12,400) to learn the lingua franca of the digital economy in a programme lasting 10-12 weeks.

General Assembly, with campuses in 20 cities from Seattle to Sydney, has an alumni body of around 35,000 graduates. Most of those who enroll for full-time courses expect them to lead to new careers. The company’s curriculum is based on conversations with employers about the skills they are critically short of. It holds “meet and hire” events where firms can see the coding work done by its students. Career advisers help students with their presentation and interview techniques. General Assembly measures its success by how many of its graduates get a paid, permanent, full-time job in their desired field. Of its 2014-15 crop, three-quarters used the firm’s career-advisory services, and 99% of those were hired within 180 days of beginning their job hunt.

The company’s founder, Jake Schwartz, was inspired to start the company by two personal experiences: a spell of drifting after he realized that his degree from Yale conferred no practical skills, and a two-year MBA that he felt had cost too much time and money: “I wanted to change the return-on-investment equation in education by bringing down the costs and providing the skills that employers were desperate for.”

In rich countries the link between learning and earning has tended to follow a simple rule: get as much formal education as you can early in life, and reap corresponding rewards for the rest of your career. The literature suggests that each additional year of schooling is associated with an 8-13% rise in hourly earnings. In the period since the financial crisis, the costs of leaving school early have become even clearer. In America, the unemployment rate steadily drops as you go up the educational ladder.

Many believe that technological change only strengthens the case for more formal education. Jobs made up of routine tasks that are easy to automate or offshore have been in decline. The usual flipside of that observation is that the number of jobs requiring greater cognitive skill has been growing. The labour market is forking, and those with college degrees will naturally shift into the lane that leads to higher-paying jobs.

The reality seems to be more complex. The returns to education, even for the high-skilled, have become less clear-cut. Between 1982 and 2001 the average wages earned by American workers with a bachelor’s degree rose by 31%, whereas those of high-school graduates did not budge, according to the New York Federal Reserve. But in the following 12 years the wages of college graduates fell by more than those of their less educated peers. Meanwhile, tuition costs at universities have been rising.

A question of degree, and then some

The decision to go to college still makes sense for most, but the idea of a mechanistic relationship between education and wages has taken a knock. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre showed that a mere 16% of Americans think that a four-year degree course prepares students very well for a high-paying job in the modern economy. Some of this may be a cyclical effect of the financial crisis and its economic aftermath. Some of it may be simply a matter of supply: as more people hold college degrees, the associated premium goes down. But technology also seems to be complicating the picture.

digital disruption

 

In many occupations it has become essential to acquire new skills as established ones become obsolete. Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based startup that analyses labour markets by scraping data from online job advertisements, finds that the biggest demand is for new combinations of skills—what its boss, Matt Sigelman, calls “hybrid jobs”. Coding skills, for example, are now being required well beyond the technology sector. In America, 49% of postings in the quartile of occupations with the highest pay are for jobs that frequently ask for coding skills.

The composition of new jobs is also changing rapidly. Over the past five years, demand for data analysts has grown by 372%; within that segment, demand for data-visualisation skills has shot up by 2,574%.

A college degree at the start of a working career does not answer the need for the continuous acquisition of new skills, especially as career spans are lengthening. Vocational training is good at giving people job-specific skills, but those, too, will need to be updated over and over again during a career lasting decades. “Germany is often lauded for its apprenticeships, but the economy has failed to adapt to the knowledge economy,” says Andreas Schleicher, head of the education directorate of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. “Vocational training has a role, but training someone early to do one thing all their lives is not the answer to lifelong learning.”

Such specific expertise is meant to be acquired on the job, but employers seem to have become less willing to invest in training their workforces. In its 2015 Economic Report of the President, America’s Council of Economic Advisers found that the share of the country’s workers receiving either paid-for or on-the-job training had fallen steadily between 1996 and 2008. In Britain the average amount of training received by workers almost halved between 1997 and 2009, to just 0.69 hours a week.

Add all of this up, and it becomes clear that times have got tougher for workers of all kinds. A college degree is still a prerequisite for many jobs, but employers often do not trust it enough to hire workers just on the strength of that, without experience. In many occupations workers on company payrolls face the prospect that their existing skills will become obsolete, yet it is often not obvious how they can gain new ones. “It is now reasonable to ask a marketing professional to be able to develop algorithms,” says Mr Sigelman, “but a linear career in marketing doesn’t offer an opportunity to acquire those skills.” And a growing number of people are self-employed. In America the share of temporary workers, contractors and freelancers in the workforce rose from 10.1% in 2005 to 15.8% in 2015.

Read the full story at the Economist - Lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative

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