Skills Over Degrees: Harvard Business School’s Joe Fuller Shares How Employers and Educators Can Find and Foster Skills for the Future
When it comes to hiring an employee, does where they went to college matter more than their relevant skills?
According to Joe Fuller of Harvard Business School, maybe not. “What we need is employers to have more solutions where they can draw on non-degree holders to fill important growing jobs,” he says.
A professor of management practice at Harvard, Joe is also the co-director of the university’s Managing the Future of Work initiative. With an MBA from Harvard and decades of experience as an executive, Joe is well versed in the best practices of hiring. But although he works for easily the most recognized brand in higher ed, Joseph suggests that maybe college degrees shouldn’t be the primary indicator of employability. Joe suggests that employers and educators should turn their focus to skills, as opposed to just degrees.
Listen in to this interview with EdTech Times’ Hannah Nyren and Joe Fuller to learn more about how colleges and employers can better prepare students for the workforce, and how a shift in priorities could be the secret to filling the talent and skills gaps.
Hannah Nyren: Welcome to the EdTech Times podcast. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I am speaking with…
Joseph Fuller: Joe Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
Hannah Nyren: So Joe, tell me about just who you are and what you do.
Joseph Fuller: Well, as I said, I’m a professor at Harvard. But I’m also the co-director of a multi-year program we have called Managing the Future of Work, where we’re looking at issues like skills development, employability, skilled immigration, why it’s difficult for various regions to develop a base of workers that’ll attract investment, the impact of demographics on the workforce, all through the lens of how executives and decision makers should factor in all of these various evolutionary developments into their strategies for their companies and for workforce development.
Hannah Nyren: That’s really interesting. So we’re here today at the LearnLaunch conference. And you were moderating the panel. But can you tell me a little bit about what the panel was about, what conversations were had, and what your research had to do with what was discussed?
Joseph Fuller: Well, one of the things we’re focused on in the panel is how technology and alternative approaches to training and skill-building could help solve some of the problems we’ve got in the labor market today. The two big ones being chronic and growing skills shortages which really constrains the ability of employers to grow their businesses and become more productive.
Joseph Fuller: And also a mismatch of employment opportunities with the skills of workers, particularly those with lower educational attainment. So we were talking about new models for trying to bridge those gaps. One thing that I found in my research is that companies are increasingly raising the bar in terms of the academic requirements they apply to applicants for jobs, as a way to try to ensure that they get a higher skilled labor force. But in doing that, what they’re doing is going after the most sought after part of the educated workforce — only one-third of Americans have a four-year degree.
Joseph Fuller: So when you take a job that traditionally didn’t need a four-year degree, and say now it requires one, you’re pushing your hiring toward the part of the market that’s most expensive, most competitive. And what we need is employers to have more solutions where they can draw on non-degree holders to fill important growing jobs.
Hannah Nyren: That’s a really good point. So how can employers start doing this? What advice do you have for employers to start strategically focusing on these employees?
Joseph Fuller: Well, the first is to stop relying on proxies for people’s actual skills. So, for example, when you say, “I need a college graduate to do this job.” What you’re saying is, “I need someone with higher order communications skills, maybe a little bit more socially mature.” But does the job really require someone with a college degree? Or just require someone with a definable set of skills, that you might instill in that worker through some training? Or you might find from a different source?
Joseph Fuller: The second thing that’s important is for companies to start thinking in terms of investing in suppliers of talent. So, a manufacturing company, or a company that buys a lot of technology, they have close relationships with the people that provide them product. They work with them on the depth, the specifications for the product, they do quality reviews of the product.
Joseph Fuller: If Ford were getting defective tires regularly from Goodyear, they’d be putting people on a plane to go the Goodyear plant to figure out the problem. And Goodyear would be at the airport to meet them. That doesn’t happen with talent.
Joseph Fuller: Companies don’t cultivate regular, recurring relationships with educators. They don’t provide them feedback on how well prepared their graduates are and too few companies offer the type of work-based learning opportunities so they can train people as to how they want a job done, and so they can see how that person does in their workplace. So we need a lot more innovation and flexible thinking from companies if we’re going to overcome the skills gap.
Hannah Nyren: That’s true. What skills do you think are the most sought after?
Joseph Fuller: Well one thing that is a hallmark of the current labor market is the number and specificity of skills is exploding. So between 2012 and 2015 we had almost a 400 percent increase in the number of skills that are frequently mentioned in job descriptions. A lot of these new skills have to do with one’s capacity to deal with one or more specific technologies. Throughout the workforce we see a hybridization of skills. And by that I mean, there’s a job that would be recognizable to a employment manager or even a instructor in a technical school from 1970.
Joseph Fuller: But that core job now has added elements that almost always have to do with your ability and familiarity to interact with some type of technology: sensors, automation, computers, databases, things like that. With that real dynamism in terms of number of skills, education training resources are having harder and harder time keeping up. But if you’re going to tell a job seeker what to focus on, it’s to have enough familiarity with programmable devices, basic data analysis, basic statistics, notions of measurement and control.
Joseph Fuller: Strangely, there’s a whole other pool. And our research at Harvard indicates that jobs that have been growing in number have an increasing ratio of social interaction. It’s the ability to deal with someone you’ve met for the first time effectively. It’s the ability to articulate an argument or negotiate with someone. Not negotiate like a contract, but if a customer comes in with a complaint, how do you deal with it? How do you interact with them? It’s the ability to participate in teams with people you’re not familiar with — could be colleagues, could be a supplier, could be a customer, and be effective.
Joseph Fuller: And there’s a general category of skills that — I’ve never really like the term, but it’s called soft skills. Which have to do with everything from business etiquette to these type of social skills. And training soft skills is hard. But the number of jobs where getting the entry level job and certainly advancing relies heavily on soft skills has been growing consistently as a percentage of the workforce.
Hannah Nyren: You know you’re not the first person who has said that to me. I’ve heard a lot of different people, not only saying that soft skills will be important in the future but also pointing to the fact that machines can replace a lot of, you know, thought-driven functions: anything computational, anything transactional, machines can do. But you still need someone to say hello to you when you’re going to buy your sandwich. So many companies now have automated phone services and it does nothing but make me unhappy. So I’m sure that at some point people will discover that a lot of those automated roles would be better if a person were on the phone.
Hannah Nyren: But I think that’s really interesting. And I think a lot of that does have to do with the development of technology. So how does technology influence the future of work, and how will the future of work change directly because of technology?
Joseph Fuller: That’s a very complicated topic, but as you said, the first thing we have to remember is machines don’t emote. But also machines aren’t very good at responding to the unexpected. Or they can be programmed for predictable parameters. Now what’s happening with technology is a machine is programmed for particular parameters, but also to take input from other machines, usually in the form of sensors that are telling it what parameters its operating under and that begins to take some of the the role of a human being of dealing with exceptions out of the process. Having said that, machines need to be maintained, installed, moved, reconfigured, upgraded. And all of those things are are high value-added jobs.
Joseph Fuller: I think one of the most negative parts of the debate about technology is when we fall into the stance of “robots are going to take over everything and we’ve got to stop that.” What we have to do is think about a workforce that can benefit from robotics, that’s made more productive through automation robotics, which will allow people more capacity to make money. But it is going to require them to master some new skills. And we have to be clear-eyed that our K through 12 system — and most of our high schools and community colleges — really aren’t well set up to do that now. We need more dynamism and more market responsiveness in the education system. And we need many more opportunities for people to have work-based learning experiences, where they’re interacting with that technology in their educational process.
Joseph Fuller: That means they’re learning while they’re still students, and it means the employers don’t have some expectation that they already know how to do that. They’re there as an apprentice, they’re there as a co-op student, and they’re using that experience to learn. And the employer is using that opportunity to observe, “Who’s a good worker? Who seems to get it? Who seems to be learning fast? Who fits in?” — to make their hiring process more efficient.
Hannah Nyren: So what jobs do you think will be in demand? I mean, we have machine repairman. But I think a lot of people expected it to be an in-demand job. Engineers, people expect that to be an in demand job. What are some specific job titles that you can think of, that you think will be an in-demand job in the future?
Joseph Fuller: It’s much easier, Hannah, to talk about what are fundamental skill sets than specific jobs. Because in 1970, Exxon would have predicted they’re going to need hundreds of thousands of people to pump gas in 2020. No one pumps gas anymore because of innovation now and as you can save money by pumping your own gas, that is regularly the case. If you just look at the medical sector, [there’s been] very rapid change in the composition of jobs and job titles to reflect the adoption of technology. But what we do know is the following: there are always a significant number of jobs for people who can sell.
Joseph Fuller: So sales skills — the ability both to have those social skills to sell, but to learn about new products quickly, to observe customer settings successfully — that is a skill set. And strangely, there are very few, for example, community colleges that have courses in selling. So there is an opportunity where the biggest category of middle skills jobs in the United States, year in and year out, has some attribute of selling.
Hannah Nyren: I mean every salesperson I know learned it on the job. I don’t know anyone who took a class on selling.
Joseph Fuller: There are some effective curricula there about everything from active listening to observing customer-use behaviors and being able to get those in your sales pitch. And also deep knowledge of the product or service about the attributes of that product, service customers most care about. Or anticipating this customer will care about this part of the product, another customer, a different part of the product.
Joseph Fuller: A second one is technical service, as you are suggesting, with robotics. But it’s also true of climate control systems, it’s controlled sensor networks. Let’s take an example that commonly talked about which is “Well gee, what if all over the road, trucks were automated, so there are no more truck drivers?” Well there are a few things that have to happen.
Joseph Fuller: You cannot control an 18-wheeler that weighs 10 tons from space, because the time lag is too long to stop it. So you have to have terrestrial, ground-based sensors. Those all have to be set up, repaired, calibrated. Those are all technical service jobs, and they need to be all over the place. So one of the kind of interesting questions about optimization of over-the-road transport is, once you get out of a major metro like Boston…where yeah, you could automate the streets here so you could have driverless passenger cars or delivery trucks — with Boston drivers that might be a step in the right direction — [it’s] much less clear that if you’re talking about a truck that’s going from Minneapolis to Seattle over the Dakotas and Montana…that you’re going to want to make the investment for for sensor packages all along that 2000 mile route.
Joseph Fuller: We do know that familiarity with and the ability to interact and troubleshoot devices that are based on software, so basic coding, basic diagnostic skills. I’m not talking about the ability to program for NASA but to do that kind of first and second order programming and also to do programming on top of some of these big applications: epic in healthcare, sales force dot com in commercial operations or SAP, the ability to work with those programs, customize them, create things that a customer, a specific customer can use more effectively. But there are also lots of skills we haven’t even anticipated that are enabled by technology. The trick is to have the capacity to learn and a basic familiarity with whatever phenomena it is you are you’re involved with or sales, being a technical service person, being a programmer, so that when new things come along you’ve got the basic kind of reflexes and heuristics to learn the next thing.
Hannah Nyren: What do you think the one thing that educational institutions should be doing and what can they do to prepare for these jobs?
Joseph Fuller: Well that’s a challenge to have just one. But I think the biggest is, be innovative and aggressive about engaging employers. Stop guessing what people need. And educators have not historically thought of employers as their customer. And they haven’t thought about an outcome as being, our graduates get employed in jobs that provide them a stable decent living and the opportunity of household formation. They’ve tended to think about successes: our students graduate — and if we’re not a terminal degree, our students go on to get more education. I think we need for large swaths of the American education system to change the metrics. And the metrics should be things like mean time to employment, employment in a field of study, ratio of income to indebtedness, are people concentrating on fields of study where there is work, where there’s good paying work? Are we giving them the guidance and the input to direct them into career paths where they can meet that new standard, that new outcome we want which is a good, decent, middle class lifestyle.
Hannah Nyren: Well let’s hope they can get those outcomes.
Joseph Fuller: I hope so, too.
Hannah Nyren: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Joseph Fuller: Nice meeting you, Hannah. Thank you.
Amanda Wahlstedt is a media arts and sciences major and education studies minor at Wellesley college. As a rural low-income student in Kentucky, she played an essential role in the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team’s College Tripwires project, a student-led investigation into the inequities facing Kentucky youth in the process of navigating the postsecondary transition process. She has written for the EdSurge Independent Cohort and been published in the Hechinger Report and Louisville Courier Journal. She currently serves as the Chief Storyteller for Student Voice.