In Part I of this series, I explore the wicked problem facing the education system in the United States. Part II considers what our associations can do to rise to this challenge.
The value of associations
There is no greater value that associations can provide than helping people get a job, keep a job, and get a better job. We do that through building knowledge and skills, whether it’s personal skills, leadership skills, volunteer skills, hard skills or soft skills. We have it all, but we sell ourselves short.
We think of ourselves as only serving our members, and we tend to focus on only those topics we think will help our members learn how to run their practices or businesses better. However, if our members are struggling to recruit qualified people, there may be another level on which we help. Perhaps we could consider reaching out and developing educational programs designed to upskill our member’s employees or look at creating an educated talent pipeline our members can use to find qualified hires that can stabilize their businesses.
Many associations have become almost myopically customer-service focused and, in the process, many have lost the thread of what’s happening in the wider world our industries and professions function in. However, if we look up and out, not only do we find serious challenges, but we realize we have a lot of key advantages to bring to the table.
Although we tend to think of ourselves as slow to react, we can actually act a lot faster than academia because we don’t have the turf battles, philosophical battles and inter-departmental funding battles those institutions have. We have access to employers who are rapidly redefining what the industry and profession needs. Our bread and butter is adult education.
A lot of the obstacles we face revolve around human emotions, like denial. It is hard for us to reckon with the large sociological trends that have been impacting members for years that we have been avoiding. People talk about affordability of dues; I say income inequality. People talk about how millennials don’t join; I say young people are having trouble breaking into professions and don’t want to pursue careers in industries that may evaporate in ten years. We have to take a holistic look at the entire puzzle and fit the pieces together.
What associations can do
Associations often lack communication with each other, even when they are working in similar fields or regions. Handling the massive changes that are on the way will require associations writ large collaborating, planting their flags and showing leadership in the educational arena. This is an international issue. We fall into the trap of believing that if we’re a regional association, we don’t have to care about anything that happens outside of our region. In a globalized society, that attitude falls flat.
Everything comes down to vision and priorities. Every association on the planet has the same vision statement: we’re here to represent our members and make sure they have a voice and make them the best professionals possible. If you want them to be the best professionals in the workplace and you want them to have a voice, educate them.
Start by getting very specific and conducting a detailed workforce analysis. Target a wide-ranging data set and examine the totality of factors directly impacting your members. Has their income increased or decreased? Is their profession going to be impacted by AI or other technological advances? Do they need to develop more soft skills to progress in their careers or new hard skills to lateral out into greener pastures? In short: what does the future look like? Remember to look outside your membership to the wider landscape and industry.
Associations struggle with the same limitations on time, talent and treasure that any organization does. But often there are financial reserves that could be deployed to retool an education strategy. Be brave with accessing your resources. Have an honest conversation with yourselves to ensure your resources are being spent in the best way possible, not only for the benefit of your members, but for the benefit of your industry and profession, as well as society as a whole.
Tell our educational story with a new twist. Tell it well. Tell it quick.