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Associations and the Future of Work

“Tectonic changes are reshaping U.S. workplaces as the economy moves deeper into the knowledge-focused age. These changes are affecting the very nature of jobs by rewarding social, communications and analytical skills. They are prodding many workers to think about lifetime commitments to retraining and upgrading their skills. And they may be prompting a society-wide reckoning about where those constantly evolving skills should be learned – and what the role of colleges should be.” Pew Research Center, October 6, 2016

Recently the Pew Research Center in association with the Markle Foundation produced a new report – The State of American Jobs and in it, they highlight many of the issues Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE and I did in the white paper we published over the summer – The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm. Jobs are changing, and changing rapidly. Lifelong learning is on the rise and questions about the role of colleges in handling these issues are once again laid on the table in stark detail. As in most studies on this topic, there are a multiplicity of contradictions to be found in the data that continue to highlight the wicked nature of this problem.

In reviewing the research, I offer the following as observations for association staff and volunteer leaders to help frame your thinking around these important issues.

Responsibility – According to this report, 72% of Americans believe “’a lot’ of responsibility falls on individuals to make sure that they have the right skills and education to be successful in today’s economy.” There are disagreements about exactly “how” individuals are supposed to go about ensuring they actually get the education and acquire the skills they need. To complicate matters, this same report points out only 16% of Americans now believe a four-year degree adequately prepares students for a job in today’s economy (which is probably the lowest I’ve seen yet while researching these issues). The bottom line is, there are reportedly a great majority of individuals who are willing to accept responsibility for pursuing job skills, who are disillusioned with the one system they thought was supposed to prepare them for this new environment and are unsure of what to do next. Associations should be planting their flags firmly on solid ground, defining the exact skills needed for their industries and professions, developing affordable options for what is “missing,” and providing clear, specific career guidance to a population hungry for direction.

Constancy – More than half of adults (54%) said they believe continual skills updating will be required throughout their careers and, if current trends are any indicator, this number will only increase. The entire college model is built around the concept of “do the time, get the degree and you’re done.” This is anachronistic in a continually learning society. I am, again, compelled to say I am not against post-secondary education per se, IF it is inclusive, accessible, affordable and of the highest quality. However, the post-secondary Achilles heel is the simple fact that they are not built, in any meaningful way, to handle the needs of the adult, life-long learner. In the absence of a complete philosophical overhaul, vastly expanding online offerings and recruiting instructors by the millions with actual experience in each field, they simply cannot scale to the breadth and depth needed to provide life-long profession-specific education. Although associations have been “papering” over this issue for many years, we have yet to formalize our efforts, stand up and take our rightful place as educational micro-institutions purposefully built to accommodate the needs of adult learners in pursuit of career-specific education that will span their professional lives. This doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to look more critically at our educational efforts to ensure they actually are of the highest possible quality, but it does give us one hell of a head start.

Specificity – This study tracks well with other studies we cited in our report from Georgetown University, etc. Although the numbers were mixed and nuanced, professional and technical certificates once again came out ahead of two- and four-year degrees in terms of perceived value in the workplace. Why we aren’t screaming this from the rooftops is beyond me. More telling is a small statistic that popped up farther down in that section that hit me like a brick – “In addition, working Americans were asked if they thought someone with less education than they had could develop the skills and knowledge needed to do their job. A solid majority (73%) say “yes.” Among those with a bachelor’s degree, 65% say someone with less education could learn to do their job, and the shares are significantly higher among those with some college (82%) and those with a high school diploma (80%).” (I’m just leaving this without further comment. Mic drop.)

Shelly Alcorn is a Principal in Alcorn Associates Management Consulting and specializes in non-profit trade associations and professional societies. Shelly stands at the intersection of technology, the education-to-employment system and the association of the future. She conducts strategic, leadership and staff retreats, and speaks on critical issues faced by the association community and society. She has published numerous articles in trade journals and regularly blogs at the Association Forecast. 

This article was originally posted on the Alcorn Associations Education to Employment Blog on October 14th, 2016. 

Shelly will be hosting a Webinar for Association TRENDS titled Associations and the Broken Higher Education System: The Case for Increasing Membership Through Professional Development on Tuesday, April 17th, 2018. Reserve your space now and join us as Shelly shows you why the U.S. higher education system is broken and how associations can be a vital part of the solution. From new research on education and employment to lessons from other associations, you’ll learn how your organization can nurture the next generation of professionals and members. Register today!

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