Challenge Based Hiring: Exploring the Promise of Blending Hiring and Lifelong Learning

Recently, inspired by a group of colleagues to submitted and entry, I decided to offer a submission to the Re-imagining the Higher Education Ecosystem challenge put out by the US Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. Reading through the call for participation, I was excited by how this challenge set right at the interaction of so much of my work, writing, and research over the past number of years. There was workforce development, learn agency, learner-centered educational ideals, a sympathy for alternative credentials and alternative learning pathways, as well as a vision for increasing access and opportunity. So, browsing some of the other proposals and drawing upon some of my most recent musings, I put together the following draft of a proposal for what I call Challenge-Based Hiring. It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t even brand new. Yet, the more that I began to pull together disparate ideas into this promising experiment, the more excited I got about the possibilities. As such, I’ve included a rough draft of the proposal below, with a few sections (like the timeline) removed. I welcome your thoughts. By the way, the challenge allows for others to join teams, so if this captures your interest and you would like to join in potentially making this idea a reality, consider becoming a partner.

The Challenge Based Hiring and Learning Platform

Elevator Pitch (it can be the same than the “Summary” section)

What if we could turn job postings into authentic learning challenges that increase access and opportunity, give rich and authentic learning experiences that lead to current or future employment, provide opportunity for anyone to show their skills (or develop them along the way) and readiness, and improve the match between employer and prospective employee? The Challenge Based Hiring Platform is designed to do just that.

Describe the Education Ecosystem of 2030

The education ecosystem of 2030 will be more open, blurring the lines of learning across context, but also blurring the lines between activities that are currently separated from one another. One such line is the process that companies use to search for and hire new talent, and the world of learning and preparation for such jobs. As such, the Challenge Based Hiring Platform is an experiment in blending these two worlds in a way that has promise to benefit both employers and individuals seeking work or just ongoing, authentic learning experiences that can build competence, confidence, and create new opportunities.

Challenge Based Hiring is intended to be an alternative to current job boards, and the standard process of job postings, applications/resumes, interviews, and then companies struggling to find the right match. Rather than focusing upon past credentials, diplomas, or degrees; challenge-based hiring is focused upon whether people can demonstrate, in the present, that they have the knowledge, skill, and dispositions necessary to do a job well. Or, if someone does not yet have the skill, participation in one or more challenges allows the person to develop new skills and document them in a sharable and discover-able online profile.

First, this platform will help employers take a job description for a vacancy and turn it into one or more authentic, tasks-based challenges/competitions. Employers agree to offer some sort of reward or prize for finalists, a small but reasonable cash prize that recognizes the time and effort devotes by one or more people, or perhaps a recognition of accomplishment or endorsement of work. Challenges can be designed where there is one winner, a select number of winners, or a large number “winners”; and awards are created and distributed accordingly. Those who take on and complete challenges also get to create profile that includes past experiences, education, credentials from across contexts, etc. However, challenges are designed so that employers/challenge creators are not able to view participant profiles until after they judge/select/identify winners. After winners are assigned (again, this can be one or more), profile data is released to the challenge organizer / employer, and an introduction is made for the possible next steps of employment.

Each challenge is designed and aligned with a core set of skills that the employer deems essential or non-negotiable to complete a current and specific job/vacancy at the company. As such, those who participate in challenges, regardless of whether they are hired, are engaging in challenge-based learning experiences that deepen their knowledge and skill, and further equip them for skills that are indeed vetted and valued in an actual workplace environment. Participants are encouraged to take on challenges that extend beyond their current abilities.

In the future, higher education partners might contribute challenges that align with common, non-negotiable skills for jobs posted in past challenges, allowing for the addition of a school-based credentials or recognition. However, this is not essential to the model or the early pilot.

As part of a challenge, participants are provided with guidelines, suggested resources to guide their work on the challenge, and sometimes learning resources, courses, and training modules provided by third parties (curated to align with the challenge).

Upon completion of a challenge, feedback is provided to finalists (and others when deemed possible and reasonable). In addition, all participants are provided with further resources, links to online courses, and other learning opportunities that can deepen their expertise in the area of the challenge. Use of these resources can be documented and added to a person’s ever-growing profile.

The participant profile will be designed in such way that participants can include information about their performance and learning from past challenges and associated courses and training. As such, those on the platform are building an increasingly substantive portfolio of lifelong learning. This increases their ability to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers. It also gives richer information that employers can use to connect with them. In future iterations of the platform, there is the possibility of using simple algorithms to recommend certain challenges to people based upon their background, experiences, and interests described in their profile.

A secondary but significant benefit of this platform is that is teaches employers to think about hiring in a new way, paying greater attention to competencies and proven skills, and less to formal but indirect signals of competence like degrees and other credentials. As such, we are focusing our early efforts on jobs with varying level of skills, but those that do not have a legal requirement for specific credentials (like some in healthcare or other professions that require licenses). With that said, future iterations could entail participation in a series of challenges that lead toward some licences and credentials in high demand fields, or at least provide early progress toward that. Successful completion of challenges could also eventually be considered as alternative evidence of learning, even used as evidence for prior learning credit that is offered by higher education institutions as part of a degree program. This allows the platform to serve and function within the current and dominant formal education ecosystem while also preparing for a more open and cross-organization ecosystem likely to develop as we look to education in 2030.

Describe a pilot or “scalable beta” that will move us toward this vision of the future.

For the initial pilot, we will recruit 3-5 companies in a highly populated area. Each will agree to work with us to design at least one challenge that is tied to the job description of a current or future vacancy. We will work with these companies to carefully design high interest, high value challenges and curated resources that could serve as learning tools for these challenges. Then we will release the challenges to the public, targeting people living within a reasonable commute of these places of employment, working with community organizations, education institutions, and government agencies to ensure that we reach a wide array of potential participants.

We anticipate that this approach will reach and motivate certain individuals and not others, and the pilot will provide us with greater insight on how to reach and engage an increasingly diverse population in the community. While future iterations can go national or beyond, we want to start local so that we can refine the process, gain actionable insight, and increase our chance of participants in the pilot obtaining valued job skills and some getting gainful employment. As such, we anticipate pursuing a series of challenges and using each one to deepen our understanding of what is working, what is not, and how to improve.

Who are the “users” or beneficiaries and how will their experience in the future of learning and working be impacted by your pilot?

Users are both employers, particularly employers who have difficulty filling vacancies for jobs, but who offer a solid, living wage, good benefits, and opportunity for employee growth and increased opportunity over time. Users are also people in the community who are already working, in school, or who are seeking new employment in the present and future. While the challenges are designed to connect people with employers, they are equally designed to deepen and promote lifelong learning that increases competence, confidence, agency, access, and new opportunities. As such, users might be job seekers, those seeking ongoing learning and professional development, and/or both.

How will your project be inclusive of a diverse population of students and their needs?

Working with community, government, and education partners will be an important part of this project. We will need to experiment with them so that we can determine the most effective ways to encourage participation from those who want to, but might lack the confidence. As such, given the necessary resources, we plan to include embedded guides who monitor participant involvement in challenges, and explore a myriad of creative, playful, and specific ways to encourage persistence in the challenges. Some computer-generated game design features in future iterations may assist with this as well. How will success of your project impact the learning ecosystem of the future and how will you measure this? Based upon insights from the pilot, the intent is to partner with more employers, working with them to design further challenges on the platform. A great success would be a growing number of employers partnering with us to embrace or at least experiment with challenge based hiring, early wins by successful matches between employers and job seekers, growing numbers of participants engaging in and completing challenges (and expanding their profiles), and either the exponential growth of this platform, or a number of other organizations creating comparable platforms. In the latter case, it would be highly desirable for platforms to build a consortium that allows the interoperability with regard to learner profiles.

Are Human Care Jobs Insulated from Robotic Replacements?

In a CNBC interview with Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, he stated that “anything that involves dealing directly with people and taking care of them” is insulated from robotic replacements in the workforce. Examples given are hair stylists, physicians, and those caring for people in nursing homes. Yet, even as Lee shared these remarks on national television, there were companies hard at work in the robot nanny industry, creating robotic replacements for what used to be (and still is) the work of caretakers. These robot applications range from entertaining and educating children (even if just supplemental at this point) as well as support or care for the elderly. There seems to be this assumption that the “high-touch” jobs are protected because there is something that we value or depend upon amid these human interactions.

What this misses is what Sherry Turkle refers to as the robotic moment. This is not a Terminator-esque takeover of robots, but something far less violent. It is the moment when we accept or even prefer a robotic substitute for a human interaction. It is happening with our interactions at banks and grocery stories, and many struggle to imagine a time when we would accept a similar technological substitute in healthcare, childcare, or even something like hair stylists. This underestimates the way in which contemporary technologies shape up, even changing that with which we are comfortable and value.

As much as I respect Lee Rainie’s work and that of Pew Research Center, my study of this subject indicates a very different potential future, especially within the next 20-40 years, one where a growing number of people will indeed accept or prefer a robotic or technological caregiver.

I don’t write this as a determinist. We can still shape what happens, but these technologies shape us as well, and suggesting to people that human interaction jobs are safe…that risks cutting off an important conversation. I don’t think we can disregard talk about robotic replacement of educators, for example, as something so outlandish as not to warrant our study and attention.

5 Steps to Closing Skills Gaps in the Modern Workforce

Do we have a skills gap today? Many sources suggest that we do. Small and large businesses are not finding the right people to achieve their current business goals, or to expand. At the same point, plenty of people are not finding good fits for themselves in the workplace. We have this because our system encourages it, but there are alternatives. As a creative exercise to demonstrate one possible way forward, here is a five-step approach to closing the skills gap, increasing access and opportunity, and celebrating the love of learning at the same time.

Stop using college degrees as a prerequisite and measure of competence. Focus on competence and experience over credentials.

For now, we can leave out the healthcare workers, engineers, and others in areas that genuinely demand highly specialized skills and precision that one develops over years of careful study and practice (although I’m not convinced that we should leave many of them out of this). Let us focus upon the many other positions that do not demand such a learning pathway. For the rest, stop requiring a college degree to apply. Instead, articulate clearly what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required and what evidence a company is willing to consider from applicants. Again, do not jump to framed pieces of paper. Focus instead upon evidence of competence. Or, if employers are willing to provide on-the-job training, articulate aptitude and traits necessary for people to benefit from that training and reach an adequate level of competence. If you do not know how to do this, there are plenty of people who can help. I might even assist if you have a compelling enough mission and vision for your business.

Of course, the problem is that I can make a suggestion like this, but the system will not change overnight. In the beginning, we will still find that many of our qualified candidates will be college graduates. Yet, if we stop focusing on the degree in our hiring and instead open ourselves up to anyone who can truly demonstrate that they have what it takes, then we are ready for the next steps.

The data analysis revolution is going to be as significant as the Internet revolution for how we think about life and work. If we do not address the gateway system in this first step, our use of data may well drive us to greater gaps and inequities. If we get informed about the benefits of a pathway over gateway approach, then our use of data at least has the potential for more humane and positive outcomes.

Start collaborating upon a college of massive “dating service” -like databases that document accomplishments, completed projects, documented experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits.

Imagine the algorithmic power of modern dating services applied to online platforms that allow people to document their abilities and experiences, as well as to build connections with people and organizations who value those traits. Some say that we already have that in platforms like LinkedIn, but LinkedIn is not thought of in that way now. It is lite on helping people provide evidence and documentation of abilities, and it contains even less when it comes to offering a leading algorithmic engine that can do what I am suggesting here. Either LinkedIn needs to adjust or the employers who are leaning on LinkedIn need to be ready for that startup that begins to quickly take away market share from LinkedIn in the next 2-5 years (I might even want to help someone start that).

In fact, even when LinkedIn develops further into this area, it is good for us to have more than one major player. It is probably going to be most effective if we have ten to twenty primary providers, along with many other niche providers for specific fields. Yet, the niche providers can connect with these larger providers if we are willing to agree upon some standards and some sort of open infrastructure like what we see with open badges (especially the next generation of them).

Create incentives for diverse and world-class education and training of all kinds, and connect them to these databases mentioned in step two.

We already have a growing and massive array of training and educational opportunities today. We want to feed and nurture the growth of these. This include formal higher education institution, what I call outsider higher education programming, continuing education, informal and self-organized learning pathways, peer-led learning cooperatives, apprenticeship programs, internships programs, boot camps, communities of practice, competitions, coaching programs, and the many other current and emerging learning experiences that document what participants learn or achieve.

Note that the more creative and diverse the modes of learning, the better. We want intensive coaching, mentoring, hands on experiences, more traditional classroom training, seminars, intensives, slow learning extended over years, online, blended, and more. These all will have ways to document what is learned and achieved (without getting too sterile and stringent), but they will feed data into these step two systems (if and when people want to share their data).

We do not need to centralize too much, but our documentation of achievement and learning must have enough in common, and being in a format capable of connecting with those platforms mentioned in step two.

Make self-directed learning and agency a primary focus in elementary and secondary education.

I am not suggesting that we need to throw out the current system, but I am suggesting that there should be a substantive strand in all of elementary and secondary education that introduces people to the idea of building a personal learning network, setting learning goals and achieving them, benefiting from connected learning, and tapping into the ecosystem that is emerging as a result of steps one through three.

Reward and support the liberal arts, the examined life, and the value of rich and substantive learning for its own sake.

This does not sound like an actionable step, but I am talking about efforts equal the Carnegie investment in public libraries and many other past efforts that focused upon celebrating the love of learning, and an appreciation of truth, beauty and goodness. Think of Mortimer Adler’s investment in education that extended beyond college. He tried to rescue philosophy from the protected halls of University philosophy departments and invite the world into the discussion.Many others have done as much, but with what I am suggesting in steps one through four, this fifth step is an important part of preventing all the others from turning into a workforce factory of some sort. Learning is about more than getting jobs. It enriches lives, families, and communities. We are wise to invest in these less quantified learning spaces in formal institutions and in our communities. Not everyone will seek these out, but we can invest in growing and nurturing them.

These five steps will help close the skills gap. They will also set us up for the emerging challenges and opportunities of a connected world. Will we go this direction? It is unlikely to unfold this way without strategic leadership and investments from private and public entities. It will need the support of friendly policies, business and community leaders who buy into this and are willing to prioritize their business success over their assumptions and preconceived notations about education, entrepreneurs (and investors) who are willing to focus upon these needs, and educational leaders who are willing to champion the important formative education suggested in this plan. Do all of this and we will see a significant closing of the skills gap while preparing for some even larger workplace challenges in the near future.

The Luddites Lost, Workforce Development, and Man Versus Machine

Perhaps you’ve been in a room where someone is called a Luddite. Or, maybe a person proudly or sheepishly self-identifies as one. You likely know enough about the term to understand that it has something to do with being a skeptic about modern technology, but that isn’t the entire story. Thee term “Luddite” has come to have the modern meaning of a person who is a skeptic about or critic of the alleged promise and benefits of one or more modern technologies, but its historical counterparts did not just stop at skepticism or criticism.

The original term come from the early 19th century when new technologies replaced and displaced workers in the textile mills in England. Owners of the mills determined that these machines were a justifiable improvement upon what the workers were able to do. Angry and uncertain about their futures, some of the workers started a revolt. Led by a fictional/mythical character who came to be known as Ned Ludd, some of these workers broke into mills, destroying the machines that risked their livelihood.

In other words, the original Luddites were not just skeptics or even outspoken critics. They were people who were willing to break the law and even vandalize to be heard or seek to change the course of technological developed that risked their way of life. They were rebels and activists fueled by the personal impact of new technological developments.

Today, those who embrace the label of Luddite are far less likely to represent such an approach. Instead, they are usually people who resist the use of emerging technologies in their personal life, perhaps partly in their work, or perhaps they are outspoken among friends or colleagues about how they don’t like or support all of this technological development in their lives (but it is usually limited to certain domains that conflict with certain values). Most Luddites today, for example, are quite happy with advancements in medical technology. They might enjoy the benefits of modern transportation technology. They live in homes supported by a  variety of modern technologies. They benefit from advancement in sanitation technologies in their communities. Yet, like their original counterparts, there is some area where the technology risks their preferred way of life. Or, there are times when their jobs are on the line if they refuse to embrace and learn to use modern technologies. This applies whether you are working in sales, education, healthcare or almost any industry today.

There are, of course, people today who parallel the plight of the first Luddites in the sense that they have been or soon will be displaced by new technologies. In fact, in this emerging age of robotics and new technological developments, our broader conversations about workforce development must take into account the fact that we will continue to see people replaced or, at minimum, augmented and changed by technology. There are countless articles and presentations of this future in the media, academic publications and elsewhere.

Yet, we can learn something from the modern Luddites. One important lesson is just that they failed. Their revolt and vandalism for a half decade didn’t ultimately save their jobs. It didn’t prevent machines from replacing people. It didn’t slow technological development in society or even their industry. The same thing is ultimately true today.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t resist and strive to shape the ways in which technology can and should be used. In fact, I contend that we have a moral obligation to do so. Yet, it does mean that we must also recognize that we are indeed moving into a future where the man versus machine dichotomy (or synergy) will become increasingly common. It will change the nature of work and we are wise to have far more serious and candid conversations about what this means for modern education, society, families and the workforce.

What should education look like in an age where many tasks accomplished in the past by humans are now accomplished by non-human creations?

Unpacking the Liberal Arts Versus Specialization Conversation

There is a common sentiment among proponents of the liberal arts (I happen to be one of them) that there is a dangerous focus upon over-specialization today that puts people at risk. The argument usually sounds something like this. If you go to technical college and get a degree in a very specialized area or you go to a one-year computer programming boot camp instead of getting a B.S. in computer science, you might be better off in the short-term, but you also put yourself at risk. What happens when your area of specialized training becomes obsolete? I wrote about this recently, but I’d like to approach it from a slightly different angle in this article.

Valid Concern

First, there is a valid concern in this critique. I meet people who worked in very specialized factory jobs, for example, and when the industry changed, that job disappeared and the person got laid off. That happens around the world every day. Jobs come and go. Needed tasks appear and, over time, become less necessary due to advancements in technology, new business processes and plenty of other factors.


Yet, I need to distinguish between the scenarios that I described above and many of the other specializations that happen through technical college, college, non-credit certifications, and the like. Many specializations today are in areas where knowledge is changing quite often. Even if you get the formal training upfront, you usually can’t just lean on that original training forever. You continue to learn and develop to stay current. That is more important in some jobs than others, but this is even (maybe even especially) important in a realm like sales.


Sales people are often engaged in ongoing training about not just how to sell, but also staying informed about their product(s), the changing market, research about their customers, new software used on the job, changes in financial options for customers, and more. How long is a car salesman going to last if she doesn’t build strong communication skills, stay up on her portfolio of products and those of the competition, build new knowledge about how to navigate the databases, and constantly learn how to take advantage of new communication technologies? These are part of working in that arena. Yet, I’ve met plenty of people who started selling when the task required far fewer of these elements. Some people stayed up with the times and made the transition. Others did not.

Here is another important note with something like sales. There are plenty of transferable skills in a domain like this. Sales is not just sales. In fact, there is a wonderful “liberal arts” element to many great sales people. There is critical thinking. There are problem-solving skills, communication skills, knowledge of psychology and the human experience, quantitative skills, and some even leverage their cultural and other knowledge to connect with or build rapport with a customer. Yes, I’ve talked Ayn Rand and Heidegger with a car sales person before. Haven’t you?

This is a field that can be and has been disrupted by technology. Salespeople had to switch the nature of their work or retool altogether. Yet, if you have the sort of skills that I just described in the last paragraph (including a lifelong learning mindset), you have a good chance of landing on your feet. These are valued traits in the workplace and communities. As I’ve written before, liberal arts colleges don’t have a monopoly on the concept of the liberal arts.

Does This Apply in Other Fields?

Some might argue that sales is not the sort of specialized training that they are referencing. After all, plenty of liberal arts college graduates end up in sales. They do so without any specialized training in sales and can do quite well. That is different than other fields that require much more specialized training…like perhaps something in a medical field.

The Medical Field

Let’s explore that one a bit more, which brings me to the title of the article. Everyone working in a medical field today is specialized to some extent. In fact, from one perspective, isn’t medical school specialized training? Yes, you finish with some sort of specialization but the study of medicine itself is specialized and distinct from a myriad of other jobs in healthcare. Of course, I don’t hear too many people arguing that this specialized training will become obsolete soon (Although, that is a possibility. There are rich conversations about the impact of developments like telehealth, personalized medicine, health informatics and big data, advancements in self-care, robots in healthcare, along with leveraging more non-MD healthcare workers and using a smaller people of MDs.).

I understand that the specialized training associated with being an MD is different than the specialized training associated with becoming a plumber. Yet, I see plenty of similarities as well. Both entail constant technical changes and advancements. Both require staying current. Both require additional emotional and social skills beyond the specialized training to excel. Both benefit from strong character and convictions. In addition, granted that you paid attention to these other elements, both provide an ability to transfer into new and often very different fields.

Learn and Unlearn

Toffler wrote this and said it often. The educated of our age are those who have a keen ability to learn and unlearn. Specialization is a reality for many jobs. It is not about avoiding specialized training. We need that to get so many jobs done and done well. Yet, hardly anybody has a job protected from change in the modern world. That is why I am others talk and write about the importance of non-cognitive skills, learning how to learn, and the importance of developing the capacity for self-directed learning. These are just as important in specialized training as anywhere else.

Just Another Defense of the Liberal Arts?

Isn’t this just another defense of the liberal arts? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I see great value in the liberal arts. It is just that many today seem to be setting up a strawman when they contrast specialized training with the values of a liberal arts education. They are not mutually exclusive. There is not one sacred pathway to developing these values and the associated mindsets, knowledge, and skills. Technical schools might not be liberal arts schools in the modern sense, but it doesn’t mean that that can’t nurture critical thinking, problem solving, learning how to learn, any many other traits that some associate with the liberal arts, including elements like an appreciation for culture and the arts (which was a point in my last article on this subject).

What About for Your Own Kids?

One critique of my past writing about these ideas, especially the concept of multiple pathways (some of which might not include college) is that this is the sort of thing elitists say is good for other people’s children but not their own. They talk about the merit of technical training and how a traditional liberal arts college experience isn’t essential, but then they send their kids to the best liberal arts schools in the nation. Instead, such critics often argue that our goal should be to send as many people as possible to college.

Yet, isn’t that forcing a preferred pathway on everyone else? Doesn’t that perpetuate the monopoly on access to certain types of jobs that people without college degrees could do exceedingly well? I argue that the learning is and should be seen as more important than the pathway. In fact, when we look at the need for learning across the lifespan, the person who gets this is at a huge advantage.

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When Every Family is a Startup

What I’m about to share is nothing new, but it is a significant societal and economic change in this connected world, and I contend that it has large and important implications for thinking about the nature of education in a connected world.

I returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam a couple of months ago. While I was only there for a couple of days, I continue to think about the cultural experience. I don’t know what this says about me but I thoroughly enjoyed crossing busy streets in Hanoi. Amid countless cars and scooters rushing by, friends told me to just drop my head, step out into traffic and walk slowly but steadily across the street. Just don’t stop or change pace as someone may well hit you, they explained. Again, I’m not sure why I enjoyed this so much. Perhaps it was because I got to disregard pretty much every childhood rule that I’d ever learned about crossing the street or “playing in traffic.”

Walking or riding through the streets of Hanoi, you can’t help but notice the line of small businesses run out of the street-side first floor of each building, with families often living above. I’m certainly no expert on Vietnam, Vietnamese economics or the Vietnamese business landscape, but I was told that almost all of these are family businesses do not reach the financial threshold that requires them to go through formal processes with the government. Or some do, but they just don’t report it. If it is run by you and family, and you don’t make too much money, it is pretty quick and easy to start as many family businesses as you want, and that is a common way of life for families in a city like Hanoi. As such, one person indicated that many, perhaps even most, families living in Hanoi had one or more family businesses. It might be making and serving one type of street food. Or, it might be a simple and singular craft or service.

As other businesses develop in Vietnam, this massive family small business framework may well fade, with more people opting for jobs in companies. Again, I don’t know the Vietnamese landscape so perhaps that transition is well underway. Regardless, I’m intrigued by the parallel between what I saw in Vietnam and what is happening in the United States and the digital world at large, the growing options for work from home, self-employment, and small businesses.

Could it be that what I saw in Vietnam gives me a glimpse into what is happening in the digital landscape? The more I thought about this, the more similarities I saw between Ebay and these family businesses of Hanoi. One difference, and this is obviously a major one, is that the business efforts happening in the United States are often experimental and supplemental, offering people disposable income above and beyond what many do for full-time job. Yet, that is not true for all, and this digital marketplace has extended around the world. In fact, I just hired a person from Vietnam, another from Russia, and two more from the United States through an online service to do some graphic design work for me. There are plenty of people who have learned how to tap into the connected world to generate significant income or even a full-time salary.

The digital world, even going back to the 1990s, helped to create spaces for people to explore and experiment with self-employment, even if mainly for supplemental purposes. I remember the personal realization in the 1990s that, if I could generate any kind of website that garnered the attention of 10-20,000 viewers a month, I could create a business out of it.

Just scan what is happening on Ebay, Etsy, UpWork, Udemy, Fiverr, Patreon, Kickstarter, TeachersPayTeachers, and hundreds of other similar online services.

  • With Ebay, anyone can become a broker of used (or new) goods.
  • With Etsy, anyone skilled in a craft (or who gain access to purchase crafts so they can resell them to people in other parts of the country or world where there is higher demand) can set up a storefront.
  • With UpWork, you can be a consultant or independent contractor as a programmer, graphic designer or illustrator, administrative assistant, writer, social media specialist, editor or dozens of other areas. These people make money ranging from a few dollars an hour to well over a hundred dollars an hour, they can set their own hours, and they can do their work from pretty much anywhere.
  • With Udemy, people are designing fee-based, non-credit online courses on everything from photography to setting up a blog, and there are plenty of people who are making solid five and six-figure incomes doing it.
  • With Fiverr, people are making extra money by doing even simple tasks like writing a 300-word blog post.
  • Patreon is a digital platform that draws from a century-old tradition of sponsors or patron’s of certain people’s work, especially artists, but it extends far beyond that.
  • With Kickstarter and dozens of other crowd-funding sites, people are getting the capital necessary to produce a product ranging from a documentary to a new electronic device. Or, they are just using it to get pre-orders for products and services.
  • With TeachersPayTeachers, educators are selling worksheets, lesson plans and other products of their work as classroom teachers; and some boast of making six figures doing as much.

With modern debates about workforce development and the role of college education, these sorts of platforms offer us a glimpse into a future where most families have what many still consider a non-traditional revenue stream, even if it is a supplemental one. It shows us that anyone with valued knowledge or skill, regardless of how it is developed or acquired, has a better chance than ever to turn that knowledge and skill into an opportunity for significant income. We live in an age where it is easier than ever to create multiple streams of income without ever leaving your house. Who knows, we may well see ourselves venturing into a future where almost every family is a startup or small business. Given this emerging future, what are the implications for our schools and education system?

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Job Interviews: What is the Worst that Could Happen?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.” – L. Snicket (in The Carnivorous Carnival – Book 9 in A Series of Unfortunate Events).

The more that I’ve studied and learned about high-impact learning organizations, the more I’ve found myself grappling with and exploring matters of talent management, especially finding and hiring the “right” talent. As I try to understand that “special something” in distinctive learning organizations, it is often a subtle blend of forces and factors. However, one of those factors is always people. It isn’t just a compelling vision, functional model, scalable framework, or set of best practices. People cast and embrace visions. People implement models and frameworks. People embrace or discard best or promising practices. Different people will thrive in some contexts and not others.

That is where my mind wandered when my wife drew my attention to the opening quote for this article, an entertaining piece of advice from Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler) in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Yet, is Lemony right? Is that the worst that could happen? Practically speaking, I suppose so. From another viewpoint, I have a different concern amid job interviews.

I’ve come to believe that one of the most important responsibilities of leadership in a learning organization has to do with decisions about who to hire. It has everything to do with the mission and distinct vision of that organization. It isn’t about who is good or bad. It is about who will amplify the mission and vision, who will be inspired and empowered by the mission, who has the gifts, talents and abilities that are right for that time and place in an organization’s life-cycle.

Apart from homelessness and poverty as pointed out by Snicket, the worst thing that can come out of a job interview is that a person would be hired for a job that is neither a good fit for that person or the organization. A mis-alignment of mission, vision and gifts can be a soul-crushing experience for the person hired, not to mention a missional train wreck. A strong organizational culture can survive some of these, but if it becomes a pattern, this is the sort of thing that can derail and entire organization.

I’m not just talking about hiring executive leadership. I’m referring to everyone person and every responsibility in an organization. If the front-end or sales people are not on track with mission and vision, we can quickly find ourselves creating a disconnect between what and how we “sell” or recruit and our core identity as a learning organization. The same thing is true for every part of an operation.

From the perspective of the interviewee, I persistently advise people to apply for jobs where they really do buy into what the organization does, why it does it, and how it does it.  When you get up in the morning, are your energized to be part of that organization? When you go to sleep at night, do you do so with a measure of pride that you contributed to something meaningful? It doesn’t necessarily need to be that you were progressing toward a cure for cancer or world peace, but finding and investing in something that matters is, to me, one of the more important parts of a great place to work.

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Who Cares What College You Attended?

You worked hard throughout high school to earn a spot in that top ranked college. Throughout your time there, you continued to work and learn, hoping that it will pay off after graduation. You graduate college and apply for that first full-time job, proud to have the name of that well-known school near the top of your resume, right beside, “Bachelor of Science.” It is a large company, but you are excited that going to that top school gives you an edge over the competition, at least you think that it will. To your surprise, you come across a news article explaining that the company for which you applied a job strips out the school names from all applications, leaving you to compete with others on the basis of your basic background, but even more so your demonstrated competence.

The value and perception of credentials and competence is expanding as we continue to see experiments that highlight a regard for competence as much (or even more than) affiliation with a given higher education brand. Consider this recent news about a Fortune 500’s adjustment to their hiring practices. We are seeing an interesting tension in societies around the world, where more people are realizing that the top talent comes from all over the place, and popularity heuristics for narrowing a large pool of applicants is also causing these companies to miss out on some of the best talent in that pool. They take the Stanford graduate for a marketing job over the genius who went to a state school and could have transformed their business. As business analytics continues to reach and reshape human resource departments around the world, more people are coming to discover this fact. As Willing Hunting said amid an altercation in a pub with a proud Ivy League student,

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxxx education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

The quote isn’t factual, but it has proverbial truth. There is an unquestionable difference between going to a top college and having a library card. Yet, it is true in the sense that a motivated person can obtain a world-class education in alternative ways; whether through self-study or getting the most out of a less prestigious college. This is not to say that Ivy League and other élite schools lack value. Many of them continue to show themselves to be outstanding learning communities, providing students with unprecedented access to some brilliant and world-class thinkers, doers, and difference-makers. They also nurture a community where willing people can build some of the best lifelong networks available. At the same time, “some” is an important word. They don’t contain all or even the majority of the world-class thinkers, doers and difference-makers.

This is why we are seeing news headlines like this: “Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university.” As explained in one of my favorite talent management books, The Rare Find, people in all types of organizations who ultimately care about the highest level of performance are seeking new ways to review applicants, no longer leaning on a simple strategy like only hiring people from a certain school or set of schools. That might work relatively well in terms of hiring solid employees, but it is also a bit like only narrowly insisting upon only buying one brand of food or clothing because you know and trust the quality of their product. That meets your needs, but diminishes the possibility of you discovering and experiencing all the other amazing food and clothing in the world.

All this is happening just as we read and learn more about the value of not just nurturing or hiring well-rounded people; but understanding that some of the highest performers are not well-rounded. They are what some refer to as “spikey” or what I call wonderfully lopsided. They play to and build on their strengths instead of spending most of their time trying to round themselves perfectly by fixing all their flaws. Of course, some flaws hinder the ability to flourish and need addressing, but there is also a compelling case for focusing on what you do well. There is a place for the equivalent of the decathlete, but there is also plenty of room for the world-class sprinters, distance runners, or high-jumpers; and this is coming from a person who has a lifelong fascination with what it means to be a renaissance man.

This is not about diminishing one pathway. It is just about recognizing that there is more than one path to high-performance, excellence or competence. I recently learned about a large and well-known company that seeks to only hire from three or four schools that they trust. This probably makes their job easier. These schools have consistently produced good graduates who do well on the job. That is not the problem. The problem is that, in doing this, they might have missed out on a more diverse and even higher performing cohort of new hires who could set them apart from the competition and take their company to the next level. Heuristics are helpful, even necessary, as we only have so much time in the day. I understand the reason of the hiring unit that cuts down the people quickly by only accepting applicants with a certain credential or sifting by looking for people from certain schools. However, there is also value in evaluating our heuristics on occasion to see if there might be better ways to find the best and brightest. This is also a great way to address at least one workforce development problem today, namely wasted gifts, talents and abilities from willing people with uncommon backgrounds.

We Need Alternatives to College for the Workforce of the Future

“By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.”

We need the alternative energy equivalent of skilled workforce development. I just read Bill Gates’s blog post entitled, Help Wanted: 11 Million College Grads. I commend him for much of his work in the education sector. Focusing upon the forthcoming workforce gap while also striving to bridge the growing economic gaps in the United States is an admirable task for his foundation. As such, I would like to comment on a few excerpts from his post. There is much good there. Yes, education is a key to this challenge, and higher education can help. However, I would like to suggest that this calls for larger, more creative, more unconventional educational strategy.

“As the class of 2015 prepares to join the workforce, what many people may not realize is that America is facing a shortage of college graduates. “

Gates goes on to point out a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. This study highlights a “shortfall of 11 million skilled workers over the next ten years.” As it stands, they are referring to jobs that require a 2-year degree, 4-year degree, or some sort of post-graduate certificate; which is why so many of us turn to higher education institutions as the potential solution. There are plenty of higher education innovations that people look to as partial solutions: more robust support systems for at-risk students (so that we can graduate more of the people who currently dropout), accelerated evening programs, online programs, competency-based programs, and more. Some of these are already helping people access skilled jobs and/or become successful earning their desired degrees. Yet, we are making an assumption here that could prevent us from a powerful longterm solution.

We are talking about a shortage of people for 11 million skilled jobs over the next decade, but that doesn’t means that people must obtain those skills through a college or University. That is how the system is set up in many cases today, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to consider alternate pathways to skilled employment alongside the college and University tracks that dominate many professions. I equate this to debates about energy sources. We want to leverage traditional energy sources, but we also strive for a future where alternative and cleaner energy sources are more commonplace. Could the same thing be true for using traditional colleges and Universities to address this skills gap? Yes, refine and improve this legacy solution, but build and support a set of alternative models alongside it. The US Department of Education and regional accreditation agencies have established too many rigid policies and rules for us to lean on higher education institutions exclusively.

Many colleges and Universities continue to hold to longstanding practices and traditions that make them less than fertile ground for incubating new workforce pathways. There are plenty of higher education institutions that are going this route and doing excellent work, but it isn’t in the mission or vision for many others. Many colleges are not workforce development centers. They are institutions of higher education with a much broader vision that includes everything from research to education in the liberal arts and providing intellectually and socially stimulating learning communities. These are all valuable. Such higher education institutions do and will continue to play an important role in society, but why must we try to solve critical workforce issues within the restraints of such higher education institutions? Innovative solutions sometimes call for entirely new models, frameworks, structures and institutions; ones that don’t challenge the existing higher education system as much as create alternate routes toward skilled employment.

Some argue that this will create a two-track system, one for the wealthy and élite, and another for the rest. In response to this, I simply point out that we already have a multi-faceted and tiered system. Regardless of the competence of the graduate, people already place different value on a degrees from a community college versus a private liberal arts college, an élite school versus a state University. At the same time, there are plenty of employers who, I contend, could ultimately care less how you became skilled and competent. They just want to know that you can do the job well, help the company reach its goals, get along and play well with colleagues, etc.

When we look at studies about workforce development and the perceived need for more college graduates, they are sometimes based on the skill and degree requirements listed on job postings and anticipated future job postings. Plenty of employers list the requirement of a degree or formal credential on a job posting because it is a an easy way to sort applicants. Yet, consider how many able people are potentially excluded by using this method. Even in the University setting, I’ve seen multiple instances where we posted a job with the minimum requirement of a master’s degree, but we saw highly competent applicants with only a bachelor’s degree who potentially could have done the job just as well or better.

One of my concerns is that we already have a one-track system called college, and if that track doesn’t work for you, then you are excluded from many “skilled jobs.” Why not create more pathways toward developing these skills, some within colleges and Universities & others outside of that system? When it comes to tackling such a large challenge in society, it is better to diversify, to build a larger ecosystem of routes toward various skilled jobs. This ecosystem can include many innovations in higher education, but if we explore options/solutions outside of that system, we are free from regulations, we have the opportunity to more readily build robust funding models and creative solutions. We can build video games that build skills in demand. Once you reach a certain level in the game, access to new job prospects are opened to you. We can build free online tutorials and resources that lead to robust and multi-faceted exams that verify competency for a given skilled job. If you can pass the exam, you are eligible to apply for the job. Companies can build schools within their organizations that hire people with certain basic skills and dedicate 2 hours a day of training to further equip them for more skilled work. The options are limitless once we allow ourselves to think outside of the higher education box. In time, it is very possible that these alternatives could lead to employment that pays better than the college graduate route.

“That [the future 11 million skilled worker gap ]may not seem possible, especially for any graduate who is unemployed or underemployed.”

This further verifies that college is not an adequate solution to the skills gap. There are equally good, potentially better solutions outside of higher education to train people for skilled jobs.  We just need to invent more of them. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Bold, “If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone else will.” This was intended to be a suggestion for organizations to preparation for the next big thing beyond what they offer now, and that is a possible route for higher education institutions. There is much room for creative and diverse models of higher education that will have many social benefits, with workforce development being one, but we will be doing a huge diverse to society if we destroy many of the other rich benefits of higher education institutions by creating mandates and policies that drive as many of them as possible to become job training grounds. A better solution is to create other training grounds, giving more people more options for work and life after high school. When such an idea gains traction it will undoubtedly impact enrollment in college. We might even see a decline in enrollments and graduates, but imagine a model where that happens because people have found other routes to pursue their goals, develop personally and professionally, and find a fulfilling and good paying job. This is possible.

“It’s time for higher education and the “real world” of employers to start working together to meet the demand for 11 million skilled workers in the US. If we’re successful…we’ll do more than close the skills gap. We’ll also make progress reducing the large and growing gap between America’s rich and poor.”

Again, this is a fine vision for some schools, but what if we worked with more than higher education leaders? What if we leveraged grass-roots groups to address workforce development through creative alternatives? What if we helped employers build new hiring/training programs for skilled workers that skipped the college route altogether? Or, once you get the skills through this training, you can always go to college later. What if we built more free and open online learning resources that could be used to become qualified for various skilled jobs…designing an array of alternative credentialing tests, perhaps as entry points? What if we stretched ourselves to think about next generation video games and alternative reality simulations focused on addressing skills gaps? Add these to the existing focus on partnering with higher education leaders, and now we have a plan that can fill those 11 million skilled vacancies over the next 10 years while also narrowing that gap between the rich and the poor.

This is not a critique of higher education. In some ways it is the opposite, a way of resisting the push to turn most colleges into job training grounds. This is a vision for changing the entire way that a culture thinks about education as well as training for jobs. It is about not limiting ourselves as we consider the nature of education and work in a connected world.

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When will we stop judging elephants by how well they can climb trees?

You’ve probably seen the 2012 cartoon where there is a long line of animals: a monkey, penguin, seal, fish, elephant, bird, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” Welcome to the common mindset behind some of the most dominant educational policy discussions.

This cartoon relates to a conversation I once had with a school district superintendent. I was talking with her about the possibility of launching one or more magnet or charter schools within the district she serves and she was initially interested in exploring the possibility. We had trouble finding a time to meet, but a few months later I reached out to see if we could grab lunch and revisit the conversation. Her reply was something like this. “I’d love to have lunch, but I’m not sure about this charter or magnet school thing. It seems to me that if it is good for one kid, it is good for all of them. Do we really believe that? Do we believe that a uniform educational experience is the key to equity, access, and opportunity? Does that mean we think the same education or training is required for every role in family, society, and the workplace? Is this the path to helping each student discover and develop her unique gifts, talents, abilities, and passions? Is the “what is good for one is good for all” philosophy of education the best way to help people make their unique contribution to the world?

I do not question the value of a common body of knowledge to some extent, but that is different from arguing for the same type of education for every child driven by the same tests. True equity, access and opportunity will come from educational choice and a diversity of educational options. This is why I continue to argue that a great strength of the United States educational landscape is the rich diversity. On the K-12 level I’m referring to legacy public, public magnet, public charter, independent, parochial, homeschooling, unschooling, world schooling, project-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, STEM academies, bilingual schools, democratic schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, and a myriad of others. On the University level I’m referring to everything from small liberal arts colleges to state Universities, blended and online options to technical and community colleges, public to private and faith-based, elite schools to a wonderfully interesting collection of alternative schools, even (maybe especially) the self-directed and uncollege options available today.

Have you noticed the recent articles and blog posts critiquing Arne Duncan for sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Part of the critique is that he is sending his kids to a school that does not align with many of his educational reform efforts as US Secretary of Education. I appreciate that critique, but from another perspective, I commend him for selecting a school that he thinks is the best fit for his kids. Now all we need to do is to pursue more national and state policies that make such choice more widely available to the rest of the families in the country. Duncan knows that you don’t test an elephant by how well it can climb a tree, and he knows that the same thing is true when it comes to finding the right fit between a student and a school.

What does this have to do with testing and the cartoon? Standardized testing is a powerful educational technology, so powerful that it can reshape an entire school or district. It can drive schools and leaders to redesign their curriculum, schedule and priorities to make sure that students perform adequately on a given test or set of tests. That means prioritizing certain core competencies over others. It means celebrating the strengths and passions of some students while paying little attention to the gifts and interests of others. It means that some will believe that they are “good at school” while others don’t think so. It means having some students who strive to simply tolerate or survive the school day. That is a waste of a person’s gifts, talents, abilities, passions and potential; especially given that there are so many schools today that would be a great fit for these students.

Some might argue, “Haven’t you seen how poorly many charter and choice schools are performing?” Yes, there are problem schools, but there is also a problem with measuring the performance of these schools using those same tests that make elephants try to climb trees. I respect how this is a tidy want to compare schools, but it is a bit like doctors using standards for dentists. Both are healthcare workers, but they have enough differences that they probably call for a different measure of effectiveness. If we are going to measure across wildly different schools, maybe we should use measures about student engagement, holistic and personalized student growth and development, and the discovery and development of their gifts, talents, abilities, and passions.

Isn’t this just another sign of our increasingly self-absorbed culture? Students want everything their way instead of sucking it up and doing the work? I’ve talked to more than a few people who think as much, but I look at it differently. Yes, this is about a more personalized and customized approach to education. It is a recognition that people are different and we can best celebrate and maximize those differences by matching the student with the best fit school. This isn’t about catering to every whim and preference of a person. It is instead a perspective that doesn’t want to see a single student go to waste, one that aspires for learners to discover their unique contributions to the world. This is ultimately not about self-service, but it is about best positioning students to discover how they can live a rich and fulfilling life that benefits themselves and the people around them. And while some argue that focusing on STEM in our schools is the key to winning some international economic competition, I continue to defend the position that a nation and world will be better off if we invest in maximizing the potential of each person instead of sifting out those who don’t fit the STEM mold. In fact, by choosing a more personalized approach, we may find that we gain more traction than ever on everything from crime reduction to workforce and economic development.

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