One of the challenges of working in education is that because everyone’s gone to school, everyone’s an expert. I don’t get it. I get my hair cut, but I’m definitely not an expert on cutting hair. Just ask my locked-down kids with the sad bowl cuts. But that doesn’t stop millions of Americans from having strangely strong opinions on education.
One near-universally-held opinion is that higher education is an end in and of itself and that degrees and credentials have inherent economic value. When I took my first job in education at Columbia University 20 years ago, this opinion wasn’t wrong. But a lot has changed in 20 years, and especially in 2020. Before Covid, the return on investment from a postsecondary degree was at an all-time low. It’s now clear it will never recover.
Due to the cost and concomitant student loan debt, while reasons for going to college were once quite varied, nearly all students now enroll for a very pragmatic reason. To paraphrase James Carville from President Clinton’s successful 1992 election campaign: “It’s the job, stupid.”
Meanwhile, employers like IBM and federal government are shifting to skills-based hiring, including incorporating competency-based assessments into hiring processes. Google is launching new six-month certificate programs that it promises to treat “the equivalent of a four-year degree.” Even venerable firms like JP Morgan have pulled back from campus recruiting.
"Jobtech is not only important to help close the skills gap and put America back to work, it’s also an equity imperative"
For employers, degree skepticism reflects an unbridgeable gap between traditional higher education and a labor market undergoing an automation forcing event. It reflects an awareness that colleges and universities are not only failing to prepare students with the skills employers are seeking, but may also be fueling inequality and political unrest by limiting credentials to those students with the requisite resources and stability in their personal lives to pay for and make it through 4+ years of school. Fifty-seven percent of working-class voters now believe a college degree will “result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good paying job.”
This convergence of consternation between the twin quasars of higher education – students and employers – is upending that old saw that degrees and credentials have inherent economic value. Education investors like me are taking note. Because much of what we’ve done over the past 20 years has been to provide billions of dollars in fuel for the edtech products and services that improve the delivery of those degrees and credentials. So their downfall means the investment thesis behind much of what currently passes for edtech must also be called into question.
The corollary of edtech’s decline is the rise of a new multi-billion-dollar category that sits at the intersection of education and employment: Jobtech. Jobtech doesn’t enhance, instrument, or scale legacy education. Instead, it bridges the gap between candidates and jobs: matching, training, and often literally putting candidates into jobs. Jobtech companies translate skills and experience into positive labor market outcomes.
Unlike edtech, which takes a glass-half-empty approach to skills, jobtech is glass-half-full: how can we create value from the skills and capabilities that job seekers already have, or could develop via faster + cheaper pathways that don’t require multiple years or tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt? Education, training, or upskilling is often a component of jobtech, but not necessarily. Jobtech recognizes that upskilling is a good thing; being against it is like being un-American on the 4th of July. But upskilling alone won’t fix broken hiring processes or convince reluctant employers to hire.
Jobtech is also different from HR tech. Like edtech, HR tech makes HR more efficient by storing data securely, automating routine processes, improving the employee experience, and providing analytics that (hopefully) provide insights for better business decision-making. Just as edtech tries to make legacy education work better, HR tech improves legacy HR practices, but rarely changes them.
Rather than optimizing broken systems, Jobtech connects education and employment. Jobtech pioneers like AstrumU are developing competency marketplaces, platforms that serve as a GPS for job seekers: profiling current skill sets, ascertaining gaps to desired jobs, and recommending pathways. Jobtech companies like Riipen link employers with students via real work projects that can be incorporated into courses and programs at colleges and universities. And new jobtech apprenticeships like Talent Path and Optimum Healthcare IT allow employers seeking software developer, data analyst, and electronic medical record talent to “try before they buy” by sourcing, screening – and yes – training, while serving as the employer of record until employers are convinced to hire. Jobtech companies focus on what individuals are capable of, and then translate those capabilities into economic opportunity.
Jobtech is not only important to help close the skills gap and put America back to work, it’s also an equity imperative. While it was once universally held that colleges and universities were an engine of socioeconomic mobility, due to changes in affordability and employability, they are increasingly magnifying pervasive inequities and disadvantaging people of color. Meanwhile, research suggests as many as 71 million workers have the skills to succeed in higher-wage jobs, but are systemically overlooked because they lack degrees.
I’m not an expert on the national economy. But I’m pretty sure that with nearly 30 million Americans unemployed, the rise of jobtech is a positive development. Rather than continuing to bet everything on the skills we’re missing – a long shot – the rise of jobtech shows America is waking up to the idea of making safer bets on the skills we already have.