Education and the Workforce: Matching Skills and Needs

Reflections on the 2012 World Innovation Summit in Doha

The annual World Innovation Summit on Education—known as WISE—is a unique, multi-sectoral education conference. It brings together stakeholders from primary, secondary, and higher education, government, corporations and technology companies, NGOs, and—critically—students. And it is one of the most global education events I’ve ever been to: 1,200 participants from more than 100 countries.

One of the aims of the Qatar Foundation, which convenes the Summit in Doha, is to elevate education to the ranks of other urgent global challenges, such as health or the environment and make sure that education gets its fair share of the “global funding pie”, as BBC’s Mishal Husain said while moderating the concluding panel discussion. Last year, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a “Global Fund for Education” along the lines of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (you can watch the video of his speech here). He was at WISE again this year to reinforce the point and help launch Her Highness Sheikha Moza’s new “Educate a Child” initiative.

IIE has been involved in WISE as an official partner in the initiative since the beginning. WISE has grown from a small conference in 2009 (that took place in a luxurious makeshift tent built on top of the Ritz Carlton’s tennis courts in Doha) into a multifaceted initiative that includes a training program on education leadership, a weekly TV magazine on education developed in collaboration with Euronews, a task force focused on the reconstruction of the education system in Haiti and a much larger annual convention (now held at the state-of-the-art new convention center near Qatar’s Education City). The conference features the usual plenaries and sessions, but also a variety of spotlight sessions, “common ground” forums ranging from civil society and education reform, to entrepreneurship in the Arab World and youth empowerment in post-conflict areas in Africa, and plenty of twitter interaction on topics. You can see hundreds of tweets from the conference under #WISE2012.

Qatar Foundation’s Dr. Abdulla al-Thani gives closing remarks at WISE 2012 Summit

While this year’s conference seems to have shifted noticeably more towards primary and secondary education, higher education still plays an important role in the overall WISE initiative. Just last month IIE and the International Association of University Presidents worked with the Qatar Foundation to organize the 3rd WISE Program for Education Leadership, which provides intensive training and mentoring to recently appointed university presidents from developing world countries.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Collaborating for Change” with the goal of exploring “how collaboration in many forms and at many levels can inspire innovation in education and lead to long-term strategies for renewal.” One of the key themes that came up over and over again was the need to better align resources and coordinate financing for education.

Here are some of my takeaways, as they relate to education and the workforce, one of the core higher education topics at the conference:

  • With 75 million young people around the world unemployed, “how can key players in various sectors and regions collaborate to better match skills and needs, and to create economic opportunities”. According to Mona Mourshed from McKinsey’s Global Education Practices, employers, education providers, and students seem to be working in “parallel universes” rather than collaborating. She also stressed that more emphasis needs to be placed on higher education’s role in job placement. How you exit college (i.e. find a job) should be as important as how you enter (i.e. your college entry exams). Another expert suggested for example that colleges and universities should be ranked based on how many students are employed after graduation and how well their students perform in the job market 3-5 years after they graduate.
  • According to the other presenters, including experts representing the International Labor Association and General Electric, the skills gap, especially in the STEM areas, is what holds back employment and private sector innovation. According to them, vocational education plays a key role here, but much progress is needed in removing the bias or stigma against vocational education that exists in many countries. Korea’s Meister Schools initiative was mentioned as a particularly successful example. An expert in one of the sessions called for a “PISA for Employment”—an analysis of which countries are doing well in terms of moving students from education to employment (Germany and Denmark were cited as positive examples). More pathways for women into the STEM disciplines is needed, as is stronger emphasis on teaching entrepreneurialism. Gabi Zedlmayer, the Vice President for Sustainability and Social Innovation at Hewlett Packard said that entrepreneurship is the number one skill of the 21st century.

From an international education perspective, I was glad to hear the CFO of GE’s Mideast operations, Khozema Shipchandler, say that a key challenge is a “lack of global thinking” among many of today’s students and that more students need to learn how to speak multiple languages and work in an multi-cultural environment.

You can watch videos of the various sessions and presentation on the WISE website.