Challenge Based Hiring: Exploring the Promise of Blending Hiring and Lifelong Learning

Recently, inspired by a group of colleagues to submitted and entry, I decided to offer a submission to the Re-imagining the Higher Education Ecosystem challenge put out by the US Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. Reading through the call for participation, I was excited by how this challenge set right at the interaction of so much of my work, writing, and research over the past number of years. There was workforce development, learn agency, learner-centered educational ideals, a sympathy for alternative credentials and alternative learning pathways, as well as a vision for increasing access and opportunity. So, browsing some of the other proposals and drawing upon some of my most recent musings, I put together the following draft of a proposal for what I call Challenge-Based Hiring. It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t even brand new. Yet, the more that I began to pull together disparate ideas into this promising experiment, the more excited I got about the possibilities. As such, I’ve included a rough draft of the proposal below, with a few sections (like the timeline) removed. I welcome your thoughts. By the way, the challenge allows for others to join teams, so if this captures your interest and you would like to join in potentially making this idea a reality, consider becoming a partner.

The Challenge Based Hiring and Learning Platform

Elevator Pitch (it can be the same than the “Summary” section)

What if we could turn job postings into authentic learning challenges that increase access and opportunity, give rich and authentic learning experiences that lead to current or future employment, provide opportunity for anyone to show their skills (or develop them along the way) and readiness, and improve the match between employer and prospective employee? The Challenge Based Hiring Platform is designed to do just that.

Describe the Education Ecosystem of 2030

The education ecosystem of 2030 will be more open, blurring the lines of learning across context, but also blurring the lines between activities that are currently separated from one another. One such line is the process that companies use to search for and hire new talent, and the world of learning and preparation for such jobs. As such, the Challenge Based Hiring Platform is an experiment in blending these two worlds in a way that has promise to benefit both employers and individuals seeking work or just ongoing, authentic learning experiences that can build competence, confidence, and create new opportunities.

Challenge Based Hiring is intended to be an alternative to current job boards, and the standard process of job postings, applications/resumes, interviews, and then companies struggling to find the right match. Rather than focusing upon past credentials, diplomas, or degrees; challenge-based hiring is focused upon whether people can demonstrate, in the present, that they have the knowledge, skill, and dispositions necessary to do a job well. Or, if someone does not yet have the skill, participation in one or more challenges allows the person to develop new skills and document them in a sharable and discover-able online profile.

First, this platform will help employers take a job description for a vacancy and turn it into one or more authentic, tasks-based challenges/competitions. Employers agree to offer some sort of reward or prize for finalists, a small but reasonable cash prize that recognizes the time and effort devotes by one or more people, or perhaps a recognition of accomplishment or endorsement of work. Challenges can be designed where there is one winner, a select number of winners, or a large number “winners”; and awards are created and distributed accordingly. Those who take on and complete challenges also get to create profile that includes past experiences, education, credentials from across contexts, etc. However, challenges are designed so that employers/challenge creators are not able to view participant profiles until after they judge/select/identify winners. After winners are assigned (again, this can be one or more), profile data is released to the challenge organizer / employer, and an introduction is made for the possible next steps of employment.

Each challenge is designed and aligned with a core set of skills that the employer deems essential or non-negotiable to complete a current and specific job/vacancy at the company. As such, those who participate in challenges, regardless of whether they are hired, are engaging in challenge-based learning experiences that deepen their knowledge and skill, and further equip them for skills that are indeed vetted and valued in an actual workplace environment. Participants are encouraged to take on challenges that extend beyond their current abilities.

In the future, higher education partners might contribute challenges that align with common, non-negotiable skills for jobs posted in past challenges, allowing for the addition of a school-based credentials or recognition. However, this is not essential to the model or the early pilot.

As part of a challenge, participants are provided with guidelines, suggested resources to guide their work on the challenge, and sometimes learning resources, courses, and training modules provided by third parties (curated to align with the challenge).

Upon completion of a challenge, feedback is provided to finalists (and others when deemed possible and reasonable). In addition, all participants are provided with further resources, links to online courses, and other learning opportunities that can deepen their expertise in the area of the challenge. Use of these resources can be documented and added to a person’s ever-growing profile.

The participant profile will be designed in such way that participants can include information about their performance and learning from past challenges and associated courses and training. As such, those on the platform are building an increasingly substantive portfolio of lifelong learning. This increases their ability to communicate their knowledge and skills to employers. It also gives richer information that employers can use to connect with them. In future iterations of the platform, there is the possibility of using simple algorithms to recommend certain challenges to people based upon their background, experiences, and interests described in their profile.

A secondary but significant benefit of this platform is that is teaches employers to think about hiring in a new way, paying greater attention to competencies and proven skills, and less to formal but indirect signals of competence like degrees and other credentials. As such, we are focusing our early efforts on jobs with varying level of skills, but those that do not have a legal requirement for specific credentials (like some in healthcare or other professions that require licenses). With that said, future iterations could entail participation in a series of challenges that lead toward some licences and credentials in high demand fields, or at least provide early progress toward that. Successful completion of challenges could also eventually be considered as alternative evidence of learning, even used as evidence for prior learning credit that is offered by higher education institutions as part of a degree program. This allows the platform to serve and function within the current and dominant formal education ecosystem while also preparing for a more open and cross-organization ecosystem likely to develop as we look to education in 2030.

Describe a pilot or “scalable beta” that will move us toward this vision of the future.

For the initial pilot, we will recruit 3-5 companies in a highly populated area. Each will agree to work with us to design at least one challenge that is tied to the job description of a current or future vacancy. We will work with these companies to carefully design high interest, high value challenges and curated resources that could serve as learning tools for these challenges. Then we will release the challenges to the public, targeting people living within a reasonable commute of these places of employment, working with community organizations, education institutions, and government agencies to ensure that we reach a wide array of potential participants.

We anticipate that this approach will reach and motivate certain individuals and not others, and the pilot will provide us with greater insight on how to reach and engage an increasingly diverse population in the community. While future iterations can go national or beyond, we want to start local so that we can refine the process, gain actionable insight, and increase our chance of participants in the pilot obtaining valued job skills and some getting gainful employment. As such, we anticipate pursuing a series of challenges and using each one to deepen our understanding of what is working, what is not, and how to improve.

Who are the “users” or beneficiaries and how will their experience in the future of learning and working be impacted by your pilot?

Users are both employers, particularly employers who have difficulty filling vacancies for jobs, but who offer a solid, living wage, good benefits, and opportunity for employee growth and increased opportunity over time. Users are also people in the community who are already working, in school, or who are seeking new employment in the present and future. While the challenges are designed to connect people with employers, they are equally designed to deepen and promote lifelong learning that increases competence, confidence, agency, access, and new opportunities. As such, users might be job seekers, those seeking ongoing learning and professional development, and/or both.

How will your project be inclusive of a diverse population of students and their needs?

Working with community, government, and education partners will be an important part of this project. We will need to experiment with them so that we can determine the most effective ways to encourage participation from those who want to, but might lack the confidence. As such, given the necessary resources, we plan to include embedded guides who monitor participant involvement in challenges, and explore a myriad of creative, playful, and specific ways to encourage persistence in the challenges. Some computer-generated game design features in future iterations may assist with this as well. How will success of your project impact the learning ecosystem of the future and how will you measure this? Based upon insights from the pilot, the intent is to partner with more employers, working with them to design further challenges on the platform. A great success would be a growing number of employers partnering with us to embrace or at least experiment with challenge based hiring, early wins by successful matches between employers and job seekers, growing numbers of participants engaging in and completing challenges (and expanding their profiles), and either the exponential growth of this platform, or a number of other organizations creating comparable platforms. In the latter case, it would be highly desirable for platforms to build a consortium that allows the interoperability with regard to learner profiles.

Are Human Care Jobs Insulated from Robotic Replacements?

In a CNBC interview with Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, he stated that “anything that involves dealing directly with people and taking care of them” is insulated from robotic replacements in the workforce. Examples given are hair stylists, physicians, and those caring for people in nursing homes. Yet, even as Lee shared these remarks on national television, there were companies hard at work in the robot nanny industry, creating robotic replacements for what used to be (and still is) the work of caretakers. These robot applications range from entertaining and educating children (even if just supplemental at this point) as well as support or care for the elderly. There seems to be this assumption that the “high-touch” jobs are protected because there is something that we value or depend upon amid these human interactions.

What this misses is what Sherry Turkle refers to as the robotic moment. This is not a Terminator-esque takeover of robots, but something far less violent. It is the moment when we accept or even prefer a robotic substitute for a human interaction. It is happening with our interactions at banks and grocery stories, and many struggle to imagine a time when we would accept a similar technological substitute in healthcare, childcare, or even something like hair stylists. This underestimates the way in which contemporary technologies shape up, even changing that with which we are comfortable and value.

As much as I respect Lee Rainie’s work and that of Pew Research Center, my study of this subject indicates a very different potential future, especially within the next 20-40 years, one where a growing number of people will indeed accept or prefer a robotic or technological caregiver.

I don’t write this as a determinist. We can still shape what happens, but these technologies shape us as well, and suggesting to people that human interaction jobs are safe…that risks cutting off an important conversation. I don’t think we can disregard talk about robotic replacement of educators, for example, as something so outlandish as not to warrant our study and attention.

5 Steps to Closing Skills Gaps in the Modern Workforce

Do we have a skills gap today? Many sources suggest that we do. Small and large businesses are not finding the right people to achieve their current business goals, or to expand. At the same point, plenty of people are not finding good fits for themselves in the workplace. We have this because our system encourages it, but there are alternatives. As a creative exercise to demonstrate one possible way forward, here is a five-step approach to closing the skills gap, increasing access and opportunity, and celebrating the love of learning at the same time.

Stop using college degrees as a prerequisite and measure of competence. Focus on competence and experience over credentials.

For now, we can leave out the healthcare workers, engineers, and others in areas that genuinely demand highly specialized skills and precision that one develops over years of careful study and practice (although I’m not convinced that we should leave many of them out of this). Let us focus upon the many other positions that do not demand such a learning pathway. For the rest, stop requiring a college degree to apply. Instead, articulate clearly what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required and what evidence a company is willing to consider from applicants. Again, do not jump to framed pieces of paper. Focus instead upon evidence of competence. Or, if employers are willing to provide on-the-job training, articulate aptitude and traits necessary for people to benefit from that training and reach an adequate level of competence. If you do not know how to do this, there are plenty of people who can help. I might even assist if you have a compelling enough mission and vision for your business.

Of course, the problem is that I can make a suggestion like this, but the system will not change overnight. In the beginning, we will still find that many of our qualified candidates will be college graduates. Yet, if we stop focusing on the degree in our hiring and instead open ourselves up to anyone who can truly demonstrate that they have what it takes, then we are ready for the next steps.

The data analysis revolution is going to be as significant as the Internet revolution for how we think about life and work. If we do not address the gateway system in this first step, our use of data may well drive us to greater gaps and inequities. If we get informed about the benefits of a pathway over gateway approach, then our use of data at least has the potential for more humane and positive outcomes.

Start collaborating upon a college of massive “dating service” -like databases that document accomplishments, completed projects, documented experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits.

Imagine the algorithmic power of modern dating services applied to online platforms that allow people to document their abilities and experiences, as well as to build connections with people and organizations who value those traits. Some say that we already have that in platforms like LinkedIn, but LinkedIn is not thought of in that way now. It is lite on helping people provide evidence and documentation of abilities, and it contains even less when it comes to offering a leading algorithmic engine that can do what I am suggesting here. Either LinkedIn needs to adjust or the employers who are leaning on LinkedIn need to be ready for that startup that begins to quickly take away market share from LinkedIn in the next 2-5 years (I might even want to help someone start that).

In fact, even when LinkedIn develops further into this area, it is good for us to have more than one major player. It is probably going to be most effective if we have ten to twenty primary providers, along with many other niche providers for specific fields. Yet, the niche providers can connect with these larger providers if we are willing to agree upon some standards and some sort of open infrastructure like what we see with open badges (especially the next generation of them).

Create incentives for diverse and world-class education and training of all kinds, and connect them to these databases mentioned in step two.

We already have a growing and massive array of training and educational opportunities today. We want to feed and nurture the growth of these. This include formal higher education institution, what I call outsider higher education programming, continuing education, informal and self-organized learning pathways, peer-led learning cooperatives, apprenticeship programs, internships programs, boot camps, communities of practice, competitions, coaching programs, and the many other current and emerging learning experiences that document what participants learn or achieve.

Note that the more creative and diverse the modes of learning, the better. We want intensive coaching, mentoring, hands on experiences, more traditional classroom training, seminars, intensives, slow learning extended over years, online, blended, and more. These all will have ways to document what is learned and achieved (without getting too sterile and stringent), but they will feed data into these step two systems (if and when people want to share their data).

We do not need to centralize too much, but our documentation of achievement and learning must have enough in common, and being in a format capable of connecting with those platforms mentioned in step two.

Make self-directed learning and agency a primary focus in elementary and secondary education.

I am not suggesting that we need to throw out the current system, but I am suggesting that there should be a substantive strand in all of elementary and secondary education that introduces people to the idea of building a personal learning network, setting learning goals and achieving them, benefiting from connected learning, and tapping into the ecosystem that is emerging as a result of steps one through three.

Reward and support the liberal arts, the examined life, and the value of rich and substantive learning for its own sake.

This does not sound like an actionable step, but I am talking about efforts equal the Carnegie investment in public libraries and many other past efforts that focused upon celebrating the love of learning, and an appreciation of truth, beauty and goodness. Think of Mortimer Adler’s investment in education that extended beyond college. He tried to rescue philosophy from the protected halls of University philosophy departments and invite the world into the discussion.Many others have done as much, but with what I am suggesting in steps one through four, this fifth step is an important part of preventing all the others from turning into a workforce factory of some sort. Learning is about more than getting jobs. It enriches lives, families, and communities. We are wise to invest in these less quantified learning spaces in formal institutions and in our communities. Not everyone will seek these out, but we can invest in growing and nurturing them.

These five steps will help close the skills gap. They will also set us up for the emerging challenges and opportunities of a connected world. Will we go this direction? It is unlikely to unfold this way without strategic leadership and investments from private and public entities. It will need the support of friendly policies, business and community leaders who buy into this and are willing to prioritize their business success over their assumptions and preconceived notations about education, entrepreneurs (and investors) who are willing to focus upon these needs, and educational leaders who are willing to champion the important formative education suggested in this plan. Do all of this and we will see a significant closing of the skills gap while preparing for some even larger workplace challenges in the near future.

The Luddites Lost, Workforce Development, and Man Versus Machine

Perhaps you’ve been in a room where someone is called a Luddite. Or, maybe a person proudly or sheepishly self-identifies as one. You likely know enough about the term to understand that it has something to do with being a skeptic about modern technology, but that isn’t the entire story. Thee term “Luddite” has come to have the modern meaning of a person who is a skeptic about or critic of the alleged promise and benefits of one or more modern technologies, but its historical counterparts did not just stop at skepticism or criticism.

The original term come from the early 19th century when new technologies replaced and displaced workers in the textile mills in England. Owners of the mills determined that these machines were a justifiable improvement upon what the workers were able to do. Angry and uncertain about their futures, some of the workers started a revolt. Led by a fictional/mythical character who came to be known as Ned Ludd, some of these workers broke into mills, destroying the machines that risked their livelihood.

In other words, the original Luddites were not just skeptics or even outspoken critics. They were people who were willing to break the law and even vandalize to be heard or seek to change the course of technological developed that risked their way of life. They were rebels and activists fueled by the personal impact of new technological developments.

Today, those who embrace the label of Luddite are far less likely to represent such an approach. Instead, they are usually people who resist the use of emerging technologies in their personal life, perhaps partly in their work, or perhaps they are outspoken among friends or colleagues about how they don’t like or support all of this technological development in their lives (but it is usually limited to certain domains that conflict with certain values). Most Luddites today, for example, are quite happy with advancements in medical technology. They might enjoy the benefits of modern transportation technology. They live in homes supported by a  variety of modern technologies. They benefit from advancement in sanitation technologies in their communities. Yet, like their original counterparts, there is some area where the technology risks their preferred way of life. Or, there are times when their jobs are on the line if they refuse to embrace and learn to use modern technologies. This applies whether you are working in sales, education, healthcare or almost any industry today.

There are, of course, people today who parallel the plight of the first Luddites in the sense that they have been or soon will be displaced by new technologies. In fact, in this emerging age of robotics and new technological developments, our broader conversations about workforce development must take into account the fact that we will continue to see people replaced or, at minimum, augmented and changed by technology. There are countless articles and presentations of this future in the media, academic publications and elsewhere.

Yet, we can learn something from the modern Luddites. One important lesson is just that they failed. Their revolt and vandalism for a half decade didn’t ultimately save their jobs. It didn’t prevent machines from replacing people. It didn’t slow technological development in society or even their industry. The same thing is ultimately true today.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t resist and strive to shape the ways in which technology can and should be used. In fact, I contend that we have a moral obligation to do so. Yet, it does mean that we must also recognize that we are indeed moving into a future where the man versus machine dichotomy (or synergy) will become increasingly common. It will change the nature of work and we are wise to have far more serious and candid conversations about what this means for modern education, society, families and the workforce.

What should education look like in an age where many tasks accomplished in the past by humans are now accomplished by non-human creations?