Academic and Vocational education worlds meet at the point of skills. Each seeks employment, and employers seek content and technical knowledge, but more than that, they seek the skills to apply what has been learnt. Employability skills has been done in so many ways, that one wonders why we still have not been able to get it right.
We debated soft skills, agreed that soft skills are the real hard skills, and then looped over to denying a line between hard and soft skills, flipping once more to agreeing that both exist separately and significantly. Fantastic, but not useful yet. This is what the quest for getting it right looks like, and while it is a great journey, it can get exhausting for well meaning (and quite smart) providers of this training. It can get frustrating for those who sign up for these, hoping for a quick sidestep and then on to their perfect dream job. Entire countries have come up with skills audits, white papers, skilling plans and programs and subsided into quiet desperation and resolute hope. The skills tangle is still to yield gold.
The only thing that has worked, as it always has in practice, is firms hiring raw talent, and training them up on the job. We, skillers pro inc., we would not like to acknowledge that the old ways have steadily continued to deliver and our smart accelerated interventions have delivered, but only in specific pockets. We wait for the deluge of productivity, of efficiency, of quality and of course skill aligned wages with more for all as we train batch after batch. It is a work in progress, we say. Meanwhile, some megaliths continue as they always have – with little hope, large volumes and steady perseverance, they hire, train, fire, retain and grow their cohorts.
There are various forms to this. One is the classic training here, where a batch is hired as trainees, put through their paces in various departments, upskilled to specific roles, and then their fit is assessed before they are allocated their vertical tracks. We see this in a variety of industries – steel, hotels, software – each in a slightly different form and schedule. Another version is an apprenticeship, an ancient tradition made new for today’s service and manufacturing industries.
But my favourite by far remains the earn and learn variety that enables choice, inclusion, self pacing and self agency, amongst so many more gains. And that happens because of the very design of the training modules that ensure these goals are as important as the technical content. This can be made to work in any area – management, sales, accountancy, bricklaying, hairdressing or even security. Anything that has been uberised in tradition (long before this uber happened) is a wonderful area to build independence and careers that genuinely empower, and release people from their circumstances.
The trick here is money. As it is almost everywhere. But not scholarships, grants or charity. They have their roles but not here. This is about earning. About self worth. About being able to pay one’s way, and escape to dignity. (or at least safety). Now. Earn and Learn is not necessary for the privileged – but it is when there is a loss of space, safety, and any kind of privilege, the way out of it has to be designed for sure speedy steps.
Take sales, or even accountancy. There are two parts to the skill certification as a solution – one is the market for jobs. The other is the ability to slice the skills required into modules that form a progression ladder with very shallow steps. Is there a job opportunity for smaller, low level skills? If there is, you have hope, and a way ahead. Take sales – there are enough jobs available for a short period of time, even daily wage/commission, that require only basic level sales skills. As one goes up the skill ladder, the earning potential increases.
This is where skills interventions must focus – build a path out of the doldrums. This is how the skills certification must be designed. A short four to six session (one a week?/One week bunched up) where the first super basics are taught. Certify these. Introduce the certificate to potential employers and place the first ten batches(and more) really well. The earnings at this stage will be small, but sure. If not in one place, then another. The stakes and cost to employers is low at this stage – the gains to the students immense because they are in a progression program. Build the next level of skills, certifying every six weeks or so. And ensuring that the next skill level gets a higher wage. This negotiation needs the backing of the teaching institution, and often of the local chamber of commerce/traders association and of the state. Do it. Build that pressure to pay our students – when they see the value of steady upskilling, this will become a normal part of the habit. Prepare quality students, place them well, talk up their success – every small slice. Slice fine.
This is where one makes a real difference with skilling programs, where the skills agency creates opportunities in a steady ladder – not one whole year later. As skills people, the first truth for us is recognition of how real life attacks our personal and professional growth – there is always the next illness, the next festival, the next need to pull us away from our skilled futures. Build small steps, create rewards for each step. This is how we up skill, one person, one step at a time. With a progression of rewards for all.
The progression and momentum is the upgrade, not the certificate. Keep up the momentum, keep up the engagement for employability. Make it pay, through the way.