The Moxie Sessions: The rise of the non-traditional education path and what employers really want

Victoria University Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law Mark Hickford

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg will forever be known as Harvard dropouts. Steve Jobs was more interested in studying Eastern mysticism than technology. The founders of Tumblr and Mashable never even made it to university.  Young people who face starting their working lives thousands of dollars in debt could be forgiven for more than glimpsing at the headlines investor Peter Thiel made five years ago  when he offered university students $100,000 to drop out and start their own companies.

So should you lock yourself in a darkened room, boil up some two minute noodles, and work through the night on your code? Or is getting a qualification still your best bet? What do you really need to learn to become employable?

Rohan Wakefield, co-founder of Enspiral DevAcademy, a training school for web developers, says that, while Wellington is a tech town, tech companies are having a difficult time finding capable, valuable employees.

The question is not coding knowledge. What employers want are employees who can handle both their work and other people - they need self-awareness, conflict management skills, and the ability to take direct feedback. “The glue that makes employees really valuable to a company is their ability to work well with others”. 

Mandy McGirr, PhD researcher in ‘employability development’ and education policy at Victoria University, agrees that formal education does not automatically transform smart students into valuable employees. Once upon a time, people stayed in the same field - perhaps even at the same company - for their whole working lives. Workers had clear career pathways, and specialised, job-specific knowledge that was both valuable and vital.

That well-lit pathway is now more like a game of hopscotch. In a world where you will work at many organisations and switch industries many times, transferable skills are increasingly important. “Research shows that the so-called ‘soft-skills’ - these non-cognitive, transferable skills - are good long-run predictors of achievement in the workforce”. In a world of unpredictable opportunities, students should be educated in “how to be a chameleon”. 

Sadly these soft skills are far from the traditional three-Rs curriculum. “Soft skills should ideally be taught from early childhood onwards. They take years to develop because they are a way of being rather than simply a way of thinking”. It is much harder to develop soft skills after adolescence, so it should be something that is explicitly discussed while learning: students should get feedback on their ability to work as part of a team, for example. 

Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law at Victoria University, emphasises the importance of real-world skill development too. Mark said qualifications are useful, but he reckons universities should provide a space where practical, applied skills can be trialled. In the 1950s and 1960s, law students would undertake an apprenticeship while studying, and have their study reinforced by practice. Now, a three-month summer clerkship prior to starting work is the norm. “Employers want access to students while they are still studying to develop skills that are vital from the first day of work. Formal training needs to be combined with the realities of work to be made functional.” Industry should have a say on what is taught and how, while also acknowledging that challenging research and thought, often at a ‘blue-skies’ level, is a vital ingredient in university education. 

Universities can bring this real-world knowledge to students by involving adjunct professors - part-time professors who have a full-time job in the field they lecture in. Mark reckons that adjunct lecturers are particularly valuable in the law faculty, where they can provide a practice-orientated perspective that can be tested with scholarly views. Rohan’s DevAcademy works the same way: all teachers are working coders and members of the industry come in regularly for talks. There might be work for the government to do too: Mark reckons the roles of research and teaching are mutually supportive and can form a basis for considering how functional skills can be taught to students.

Tertiary education can still be good in itself, even the often-ridiculed BA. Mark again: “Companies are happy to employ people with no coding experience and arts degrees, as long as they have good work patterns and diverse life experiences”. That said, the students in the room were concerned about doing a degree without a clear career path - and a way to pay off a mountain of debt. Many of the jobs available these days aren’t even on the radar for teenagers growing up anywhere outside a big city. The conventional careers of law or medicine still dominate people’s conceptions of tertiary study, with venture capital, coding or consultancy not even on the radar. 

In a world where career paths are less of a beaten track and more of set of unpredictable stepping stones, uncertainty can mean both new possibilities and a world of stress. Education needs to be looked at not just as an institutional issue, but as an industry issue and a community issue as well. Far from the increasingly test-driven school curriculum, soft skills, while they may be nothing new, are becoming newly important in order to adapt to a diversifying job market.

Sophie Boot is now a reporter at BusinessDesk. Her Twitter is @sophieJGB

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for their generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

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