SAN DIEGO -- The tone appears to have changed at ASU+GSV, the booming ed-tech and investment extravaganza held here each April by Arizona State University and GSV Capital.
Predictions of doom for hidebound colleges have been less common during sessions at the conference. Instead, attendees are focused on job training and the skills gap, challenges most think offer opportunities for both technology-focused start-ups and the more nimble segments of higher education.
It’s a conference where people spend more time schmoozing than attending sessions. But the official agenda tilts toward how providers of postsecondary education can better prepare students -- both traditional-age ones and older adult workers -- to enter the work force and then change jobs and careers many times.
Part of the challenge is that lifespans for some children born now will be well over a century, Michelle Weise, senior vice president of work-force strategies and chief innovation officer for the Strada Education Network, said during one session.
“Are we talking about a 100-year work life?” said Weise, who runs Strada’s new Institute for the Future of Work, adding that the next generation of students will need to continuously learn new skills with “bite-sized chunks of on-demand pathways" through the knowledge-based economy.
Weise and others said this means change for more than higher education.
“So many of our employers are retreating from job training and expecting perfect work experience,” she said. “We’re at a really important inflection point.”
The job-training focus here included discussions about apprenticeships, a decidedly old-school agenda item at a Silicon Valley-centric event.
“Employers need to open up their shops more and get engaged,” said Eric Seleznow, a senior adviser for Jobs for the Future and former official at the U.S. Department of Labor. “Quit whining about the pain and get in the game.”
Also on that panel was Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, an online technology school that helps train employees to work at Simple, LivingSocial and other tech companies. Treehouse developed its take on apprenticeships in part to diversify its work force with employees from minority and lower-income backgrounds. And he said apprenticeships pay off in the long run, too.
“The only way I can retain talent is to create it,” he said. “Doing the thing that you’re going to do on the job is the best way to learn.”
Carson was far from alone in arguing that companies need to take a more proactive role in training and molding their employees. Many speakers here agreed that it’s a mistake to hope for work-ready college graduates.
“Companies that are serious about this are going to have to do that on their own,” said Scott Kinney, the managing director of Devonshire Investors and former president of Capella University.
Carson from Treehouse, however, was more critical of traditional colleges than many other panelists at the conference, suggesting the college degree may be overrated.
“Are colleges ever going to be able to have curriculums that are up-to-date?” he said. “Why not just go around them?”
His fellow panelists pushed back, arguing that despite their flaws, college degrees help employers assess job applicants while also allowing workers to have “portability” to move across jobs.
“We are looking at the traditional academic organizations to have done some of that screening,” said Annette van’t Spyker, vice president of human resources and talent for Capgemini’s North American Consulting division. “It is still that trusted proof.”
Likewise, several session speakers encouraged holding the line on standards of quality amid the needed push for more innovation in postsecondary job training.
Seleznow, for example, warned that apprenticeships without the imprimatur of the federal registration process can be of lower quality. (The Trump administration has eased rules around the federal apprenticeship registration process, which many companies say is slow and cumbersome.)
Registered apprenticeships are the “gold standard,” said Seleznow, who directs JFF's Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning. For example, an apprentice electrician earns a credential they can take anywhere. “There’s rigor in the standards,” Seleznow said. “Otherwise you could throw up an apprenticeship anywhere and have no quality control.”
Many speakers here said the challenges colleges and other providers of postsecondary education face in meeting work-force demands are legion.
“Our equity gaps are as bad as they’ve ever been,” said Martha Kanter, a former U.S. under secretary of education during the Obama administration, adding that roughly half of college students now receive federal Pell Grants, which shows “who’s in the pipeline.”
As universities adjust to better serve growing numbers of older and lower-income students, conference speakers suggested they would be wise to study what works well among upstart providers, including coding and skills boot camps.
Some speakers noted that colleges have a long history of adopting (and co-opting) innovative practices from outside the traditional academy. That includes the growing number of online programs offered by private and public universities, which they learned from for-profit colleges and MOOC providers.
A high-profile example on display here is the move by California's community college system to create a statewide fully online institution that will issue only nondegree credentials aimed at working adults. The college also will be competency based. The system's chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, described the plan during a session with Michael Crow, Arizona State's president.
“We’ll see higher education transform the way we did,” said Jonathan Lau, the vice president and general manager of skills at Cengage Learning.
One of Lau’s fellow panelists was Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University’s Global Campus, a fully online institution created in 2007. She noted the empty chair on the dais for Jake Schwartz, the CEO and co-founder of General Assembly, the large boot camp provider a Swiss staffing firm this week announced it would buy for $412.5 million. Schwartz didn't attend because he was with his company's employees.
“This is higher ed’s breakout moment,” said Takeda-Tinker. “We’ve seen the boot camps, the General Assemblies, come and go.”