Trends in Education-to-Employment: Part I

Written by Shelly Alcorn on June 10, 2018

In the past few years, I have conducted a tremendous amount of research into the education-to-employment system. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that associations have an important role to play in defining skills and competencies and in providing education to make a dent in the wicked problem we are being presented with in the United States.

So what is this wicked problem? In 2016, Elizabeth Engel and I co-authored our white paper entitled ‘The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm’. Through statistics, analysis and case studies, we took a deep dive into the complex web of challenges playing out in the education-to-employment system.

Since writing the white paper, we have actually seen the trends we highlighted accelerate. What we predicted has come to life less than two years later. Here are some concrete examples of these changes.

Student Debt

In the last two years, student debt has increased to an average of $37,000 per student. The total amount of student debt has exceeded $1.48 trillion. These figures are climbing every day and acting both as a burden on enrolled and recently graduated students, and a deterrent for prospective students.

Colleges & Institutional Changes

The lack of funding for education at local, state and federal levels has, in many cases, continued to decline. Small colleges, particularly local and regional ones, are either drastically cutting programs in order to remain profitable or they are closing outright. Education futurist and consultant Bryan Alexander refers to this as the “Queen’s Sacrifice”: to keep their doors open, a college radically reduces what they offer which pushes enrollment down and begins a negative feedback loop. Some institutions think investing money in new campus facilities and extracurricular services will solve their financial problems by increasing their attractiveness and driving enrollment up. However, more often than not, those kinds of investments underperform as enrollment incentives and serve as drivers of increased tuition fees instead.

Political Climate & International Students

The new presidential administration in the United States has kickstarted a number of new trends that we did not foresee two years ago. Moves have been made to restrict or prevent international students coming to the US, creating an accelerated brain drain. Many international associations are starting to support students in getting an education through alternative routes because their industries and professions depend on developing a talent pipeline. If these students from across the globe can’t enroll in US institutions, they will find their education elsewhere, further damaging the ability of many institutions to stay financially viable.

Skill Gaps

In April of 2018, the latest Small Business Jobs Report from The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) noted that 47% of small businesses in the United States are struggling to find qualified applicants for open roles. We find ourselves in a strange situation where open positions are available, and yet there are no people to fill them. In response, some employers are beginning to use artificial intelligence and other technological solutions to stabilize their businesses and bypass human talent altogether. Add to that the fact that enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher learning has dropped for the sixth year in a row, and we have cause to be concerned.

Artificial Intelligence

In the white paper, we referred to the Oxford University study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation (which has been updated with a second report published in partnership with Citibank: Technology at Work v2.0) on how artificial intelligence and other technologies, including blockchain and additive manufacturing, are going to make significant inroads into white collar and middle-skill jobs in the not-so-distant future. Two years in, we now have a number of real-life examples of how AI is being deployed in the workplace. Even jobs that were thought to be irreplaceable or secure for the long term have been affected.

For example, J.P. Morgan Chase had a number of attorneys and accountants working on corporate contracts. They deployed IBM’s Watson and as a result, the 360,000 hours per year that these professionals used to put into this work is now being done in seconds with an unbeatable accuracy rate. Financial institutions around the world are going to start using Watson or a similar AI engine to do similar tasks. Once an AI learns to do a job, it only needs to learn how to do it one time and can immediately be deployed worldwide in similar situations.

These changes were theoretical in 2016. Now the consequences are coming fast. When corporations feel the effects of massive salary savings coupled with increased speed and accuracy, and are relieved of the human resources burdens humans pose such as sick time, there is little incentive for them to look backwards to the days when humans did that work for them.

Corporate Education

Academics are concerned about the rise of corporate education, particularly in STEM areas. Technological advancements are coming so fast that corporations such as Google, Facebook and others are providing training to staff on their own, but those resources are not filtering back into the academic world. Without a concerted effort to increase speed and cooperation, colleges are at risk of losing their footing in these subject areas.

Associations have a responsibility to bring those threads back together. If you represent the academic community and you have industry sponsors, or vice versa, you can start brokering these conversations so information flows more openly between industry, academia and associations. The transfer of knowledge should be a priority for any and all associations.

In part II of this series, I will delve further into what associations can do to rise to the occasion and make a positive difference on behalf of their members, their industries and professions, and society at large.

Shelly spoke in “The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to register to watch the sessions on demand.