Take this job and fill it! Education and Employment in the EU

Last month, global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published a report on unemployment among young people in the European Union. The report’s authors – Mona Mourshed, Jigar Patel, and Katrin Suder – found that, while unemployment among young people remains persistently high, employers in the EU struggle to find workers with the right skills.

EU, Europe, young people, unemployment

Young people in the EU struggle for work. Employers struggle to find good workers.

In fact, one third of the employers they surveyed said that the lack of skills is causing major problems for them in terms of cost, quality, or time. Twenty seven percent said that they had left a position open in the past year because they couldn’t find an applicant with the right skills. Ironically, the problem was worse in countries with higher unemployment.

The study’s authors make several recommendations on improving the situation. One, in particular, stood out for me: “Innovate with design, course delivery, and financing to make education more affordable and accessible.” These principles have guided Rukuku’s development from the beginning, and it is exciting to see McKinsey highlighting them in this report.

Also, one possible solution recommended in the report involves breaking up degree or vocational programs into smaller modules, giving more flexibility for students to structure their educational tracks around their schedules, budgets, and personal goals. Again, this is a big part of Rukuku’s approach, breaking down our classes into modules to increase flexibility. We hope to help students around the world develop the skills necessary to fill more positions.

To see McKinsey’s executive summary and/or download the full report, click here.

Rukuku At Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools Show And Tell

On December 4, I had the honor of showing Rukuku’s toolset at Kevin Kelly‘s first ever Cool Tools show and tell.
bl3I like to think of Rukuku as a tool for customizing one’s education, and that makes it a Cool Tool as defined by Kevin Kelly in his latest book Cool Tools: A Catalog Of Possibilities “A cool tool is … Anything useful that increases learning, empowers individuals, does work that matters, is either the best, or the cheapest, or the only thing that works.”


And check out the very cool Styrobot, which Kevin Kelly made together with his son.


If you have an hour and a half to kill, here’ s the recording of the Google Hangout broadcast:

Discovery and decline

Photo Credit: (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

The space shuttle Discovery’s final voyage over the Washington, DC area (and over my head) Tuesday morning was a spectacular sight. Unfortunately, it was also a spectacular reminder of the declining emphasis on science and mathematics in the American education system.

Yes, the space shuttle program had many faults. Its fatality rate was alarmingly high. It probably even deserved to be ended – but its end serves as a powerful symbol of our muddled priorities. Over the years, the space program inspired many people to become science, engineering and mathematics professionals. So whatever your views on federal spending happen to be, it is telling when there is about eighty times more money allocated for military spending (most of it to support our increasingly bizarre nation-building and intervention in the Middle East) than for NASA.

This attitude trickles down to the school system. American students’ science and math scores have remained very stagnant compared to those of other developed, and even developing, nations around the world. The problem starts with teachers: we have fewer and fewer qualified and passionate professionals teaching science and math because the inspiration and the incentives just aren’t there. The few who do exist are not sufficiently rewarded by the system.

Granted, the United States continues to have a good environment for encouraging tech innovation – private sector technology titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are ample proof of this. Sadly, we’re not doing a good job inspiring the next generation of innovators.

Socioeconomic barriers

On this blog, we’re always talking about problems in education that need solving. One of these is the socioeconomic gap in access, quality, and achievement. What specific issues should stakeholders in education be aware of in solving this problem? Here are some examples:

High cost

Sure, in most countries public education is funded by the taxpayer, so it’s ostensibly free. Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole picture. Even in the developed world, public education is often of low quality, requiring learners to supplement their instruction with expensive, resource-heavy private services. And outside of primary school education, the world is full of people who want to learn something but aren’t able to because of prohibitive costs.

Poor access/low quality

In low-income areas of developed countries, as well as those in the developing world, access to quality education is in short supply. Good teachers are few and far between, and other educational resources are even more scarce.

Lack of relevance

As we discussed in our commentary on curricular problems and in our last post, the things that are being taught in public schools are often irrelevant to the learners. For example, often people who require instruction in a trade will receive an abstract education that is of little use in advancing their career aspirations. There are no services broadly available to effectively and cheaply educate interested people in a subject they find relevant or necessary to their life or career advancement.

In our next installment, we’ll be talking about the ways in which online education technologies can help to address these issues.

Relevance in Education

At Rukuku, we’re always thinking about solutions that will give people options when it comes to education. One of the problems we are trying to solve is the problem of relevance: we want people to be learning things that are relevant to their personal interests and professional goals.

The United States is respected around the world for its venerable system of higher education. There is much to laud: there’s no doubt that we have some of the world’s best colleges and universities, greatest opportunities for research and innovation, and most talented people.

Unfortunately, American education is also severely deficient in one very important area: real-life career training. When it comes to technical or vocational programs, or even just learning a relevant skill at one’s own initiative, we do not have many quality options available. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries, such as Germany, where only a small fraction of people attend full-fledged universities, with most opting for narrower professional programs.

In a recent exchange of political slurs between our president and candidate Rick Santorum, the latter called Obama a “snob” for suggesting that everyone should go to college. It’s a shame Santorum’s many years of higher education didn’t teach him any tact, because he missed a perfect opportunity to make a serious statement on the matter. What he might have been trying to say, in his indelicate Santorumish way, is that there should be a lot of alternatives to the traditional four-year higher education model. That, actually, would have been a pretty sensible thing to say. If he had said it.

As important as higher education is to many people, there are many other people who do not need to attend universities and learn useless things that will not help them to become productive members of society. There was a time in America when it was possible to be make a great living doing a skilled trade without having to go through the motions of receiving a (completely useless for many) bachelor’s degree. Those days can return if we’re willing to accept the idea that college really isn’t for everyone, and that many of us would be better off learning real, useful skills instead.

This argument has some seriously positive economic implications, too. The United States, once the world’s most prolific producer, currently exports much less than it imports. A lot less. We don’t make anything anymore in this country – and I daresay part of the reason is that we’ve forgotten how.

Now, you can talk all you want about how our labor can’t compete with cheap labor from Asia, and how we’re destined to become a 100% service economy, and all that jazz. But guess what? The Germans clearly didn’t get that memo. Despite having one of the most expensive labor forces in the world, they continue to produce everything from washing machines to cars to electronics to medical equipment to Märzen. You can go ask their $18 billion trade surplus if you don’t believe me.

College is undoubtedly one of the most important ways to encourage an educated, productive population. But it should not be the only answer, and if you still think it is, perhaps you ought to get off your ivory tower!

What do you think, readers? Leave your angry comments below.

American students: “Where’s New York?”

Now that we’ve dabbled in the topic of teachers, it may also be useful to direct some attention towards curricula. Here are the questions we think should be asked in evaluating the quality of what is being taught at American primary schools, colleges, and universities.

Are students in our education system acquiring valuable, relevant, actionable skills?

For too many people, especially those in higher education, instruction yields very little in the way of a useful skill set that can be applied towards a real job. Employers often quip that their entry-level employees are woefully incompetent at actually doing things – a result of four years of learning abstractions rather than skills.

Are they receiving complete, factual information about the world?

Studies expose major gaps in what US students are taught. Geography is one of the most glaring examples: despite constant news coverage since 2003, a 2006 survey revealed that 63% of Americans aged 18-24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world. Even worse, a more recent study showed that 50% of young Americans couldn’t even identify the state of New York on a map of the US!

Are they being challenged to think critically and develop ideas?

Although American schools are better at encouraging critical thinking and creativity than some of their counterparts around the world, the overall picture remains bleak. Too often, merely following directions is encouraged while reasonable questioning is discouraged. Getting good grades on multiple choice tests is rewarded, while learning profoundly and thoroughly is not. Following a formula is lauded, but explaining a formula, or questioning one, is ignored.

Are they being taught how to effectively use technology and be players in the modern economy?

Even today, most curricula in US schools do not include incorporating or learning about technology that is vital to becoming a productive player in the global economy. Aside from those specialized in technological fields, most American students’ computer knowledge is a result of personal initiative rather than a systematic approach in education.

Visit us on Sunday for an analysis of what factors may be responsible for America’s curricular woes.