Once upon a time, there was a traditional education entry point into the workforce. Someone could go to community college, or a traditional four-year university, and obtain their degree. But now, the variety of options to the workforce are almost limitless. Internships, apprenticeships, entry-level positions, freelance work, and networking opportunities are just a few. Each entry point offers its own path for individuals to enter and start their career.
The days of entering the workforce in one place of employment and staying there until retirement have disappeared. Today, flexibility and adaptability are king (or queen). For example, I received my degree in electrical engineering, and then I entered the workplace as a professional electrical engineer. Specifically, I designed circuits, and I had a very specialized career focus. As time passed, I added more degrees, including my MBA and a doctorate in education. I moved up this workforce chain from a specialized career focus to a generalized career focus. This allowed me to be more flexible. I can do many different things because I leveraged not only my business degree, but also my electrical engineering degree and my education degree.
While, yes, I became an expert in the community where I was working, in all honesty, I actually was more of a generalist. This goes counter to the advice of many, who claim that as you increase your degrees, you become a specialist. I’m proposing that as you increase your different areas of knowledge, in this case through traditional education, you, in fact, become a generalist. My degrees, as mentioned previously, were in engineering, business, and education; three very different skillsets. While one might regard this as me becoming very “specialized,” because I am an “expert,” I could genuinely be plugged into many different and new challenges. I have actually become a more flexible person.
Now, let’s look at the other side—workforce entry via a different entry point, one not through traditional education. Apprenticeship, for example, is an industry-driven, high-quality career pathway where employers can develop and prepare their future workforce. Individuals in an apprenticeship program can obtain paid work experience, classroom instruction, and a portable, nationally-recognized credential.¹ These apprenticed employees can get paid, obtain relevant workplace experience, and acquire the skills and credentials many employers are seeking.
For example, let’s say that I have an interest in how things work. For instance, I want to learn mechanics. There’s a certification program that I can earn and learn, and then obtain a specific credential that says I am certified to run a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. I am empowered with this capability. However, I am still very specialized. I can really only run a CNC machine. However, I choose to obtain other credentials. As I move up now, I’m not limited to just working on the CNC machine; I’ve become an expert in a variety of credentials. I’m able to do many different things because I have curated a variety of different skills, but they weren’t necessarily through university degrees, but instead through certifications, self-knowledge, self-taught, apprenticeships, etc.
I believe that we are moving towards a more curated model, and in the book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring explore why this is inevitable.² They illustrate how higher education can respond to the forces of disruptive innovation. Christensen was asked by Phoenix University if he would do a class for them. And so instead of a student in that class saying, “I got my education from the university,” they instead would say, “I learned innovation from Clayton Christensen. I learned economics from so-and-so. I learned this from so-and-so.” You curate and pick the pieces you want, and you get the best experts. You’re not limited to a single university and what professors happen to be there.
This approach aims to optimize learning outcomes by focusing on the learner’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. Now, the question is how do we move individuals up the chain to make them more capable and to keep them in our workplace? This is where we talk about gamification. The gamification piece is where we take their training and career development, and we “gamify it.” Employers use game design elements and mechanics to enhance productivity and motivation among employees. It can include setting goals, offering rewards, creating challenges, or using leaderboards to encourage desired results. It’s a way to make work more enjoyable, foster healthy competition, and in turn drive better results. In addition, instead of waiting every year to do an annual review, we should do that every four to six weeks, in micro-steps. There could even be micro-promotions and micro-salary increments as you go through these steps.
I had a conversation with a Google executive who said that at Google every three months you meet with your manager, and they talk about your personal impact portfolio. Rather than an employee saying, “I feel I’m doing a good job,” they have to show the impact that they have made on the company. Google is a little less concerned about degrees and more concerned about your impact portfolio.
We should reframe our jobs in terms of capabilities instead of degrees or hours. In turn, we can consider if a traditional education degree is based on how many hours a student completes, not whether or not they’re fantastic at the job.
Decades ago, companies began adding degree requirements to their job descriptions. Fortunately for today’s workforce, we have come a long way. As of now, many companies are moving away from degree requirements and moving toward skills-based hiring, especially in middle-skill jobs.³ Skills-based hiring has gained significant traction. It allows for a more targeted selection process and can lead to a better match between the candidate’s abilities and the job requirements. It is a positive shift that emphasizes practical abilities and potential contributions over formal credentials alone. More work remains to be done, however we are trending in the right direction and will continue to do so.