The higher education-career template is still the undisputed way to go for many living in developed countries. In Canada, where I live, more than two million people fill the country’s universities and colleges. 53% of Canadians have post-secondary degrees, the highest of any OECD country.
While we’re lucky to live in such a highly educated society, there’s growing anxiety over whether the conventional rites of passage are compatible with the new world technologists are creating.
Some see a scenario in which hordes of young people lament expensive, near-useless university degrees while companies scour for the rare science, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills they need.
Already 1.3 million Canadians are unemployed while 400,000 Canadian jobs go unfilled. Many of the vacancies are in skilled technical professions and trades, which is perhaps why so many jobless or underemployed young people regret not going to trade school (63% of Canadian unemployed university graduates feel this way, according to a 2016 study).
Shaking up higher education
Meanwhile, the internet is shaking the very foundation of the education system. The unlimited participation and interaction that takes place in ‘MOOCs’ (massive open online courses) and other forms of online learning can make traditional university education look archaic.
Even without joining a MOOC, disciplined learners can use the internet to fast-track their way to a degree-educated level. Some see this as a way to eschew conventional higher education in favour of more affordable, more efficient and more fluid ways of learning. Really, the only thing they won’t have on their resume is “BSc”.
STEM companies have a huge role to play in encouraging and helping young people to choose this route. Not only must they change what they value when hiring (real skills beat degree certificates), they must also become actively involved in the education process.
To produce more STEM-educated workers and close the skills gap, companies can even use the combined power of MOOCs, internet resources and digital HR tools to create their own educational institutions. They can take responsibility for preparing high school graduates for STEM work just as, if not more, effectively than universities or colleges.
The idea of companies training workers straight out of high school is nothing new. Blue-collar trades call it apprenticeships. White-collar apprenticeships never took off because policy drives over recent decades saw young people pushed into going to university or college. According to Wired, however, coding is the new blue collar job. Does this mean STEM apprenticeships could become the new normal?
Making white-collar apprenticeships work
Apprenticeships typically come with pay, so it’s not within a STEM employer’s best interests to hand them out to high school leavers in the hope that they’ll begin returning value right away. There is an outlandish alternative: what if large STEM companies set up their own universities, offering degree-level education at a more reasonable cost? It’s something that would need to be backed up by strong government regulations, but with today’s technology and job market it’s not unthinkable.
Even if it’s not an employee-paid model, STEM companies can still benefit from making white-collar apprenticeships the way to go for high school graduates. It opens the door to larger pools of talent, allows control over the skills being taught, and gives companies a head start on securing the top talent.
It sounds obvious on paper, so why aren’t STEM companies already doing it? First, there’s the cost and amount of work involved in setting up an educational institution within a company. The complex regulations that apply to higher education are enough to put most companies off the idea.
Apprenticeships have historically been associated with unions, giving employers another reason to shy away from them. Companies are also wary of the possibility that apprentices will up and leave for better salaries or start-ups once they have the skills they need.
Despite these concerns, if university costs keep rising – causing fewer people to do STEM degrees and the skills gap to keep growing – STEM employers could find themselves ruing the decision not to step up and create degree-level apprenticeship programs.
Signs of change in STEM education
Just as young people were sold the university dream throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there are signs the same could be about to happen for white-collar apprenticeships. Before his term ended, President Obama put aside $100 million in grants to develop apprenticeships, and with the rise of STEM jobs the stigma associated with choosing apprenticeships over university is fading.
Already partnerships between high schools, post-secondary institutions and tech companies, such as Templeton STEM in Vancouver, are nurturing interest in STEM among teenagers – an indication that the likes of SAP are willing to invest and be directly involved in education for their own future gains.
Some companies have realized that traditional higher education can be a poor indicator of skills, and that there can be more efficient ways of nurturing young talent. IBM HR vice president Sam Ladah says the focus should be on “new-collar jobs” – judging candidates on skills rather than educational background. He believes people who don’t have four-year degrees can prove their technical knowledge through other certifications and coding bootcamps.
If the trend continues, it could one day be white-collar apprentices who are sought after while the university-educated are scoffed at. The by-product of higher quality, hyper-relevant apprenticeships would be businesses treating them equally, if not preferably, to more generic degrees.
A move away from STEM university degrees and towards white-collar apprenticeships will not happen by the will of young people alone. It will take a joint effort from governments, students, and perhaps most importantly, the STEM companies that need it to happen.