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Piling On Formal Education And Credentials Will Not Solve The Skills Gap –Expert

What we should advocate for is genuine learning and acquisition of knowledge, not the collection of badges

In the recent Parliamentary Budget debate, one of the “radical” ideas mooted by a Member of Parliament (MP) was to place an expiry date on degrees conferred by Singapore’s institutes of higher learning.

Like road tax renewal, the suggestion was for graduates to attend courses for upgrading every five years to renew the validity of their degrees. Short of which, their credentials would lapse, along with the entitlements and benefits of being a degree holder.

In response, I wrote a LinkedIn post sharing how I struggled to understand how piling on more formal education and credential stacking solves the skills gap.

I was genuinely surprised by the overwhelming reaction, with more than a thousand reacting and sharing their own stories in less than 24 hours.

I believe this reveals a fundamental mismatch, and badge collection has been mistaken for education.

The badge collecting phenomenon

Badge collecting culture is prevalent everywhere, and it starts from our education days.

When I was in secondary school, I peek at the rows of badges my uniformed group friends wore on their lapels. As they rose the ranks, the badges started to accumulate, reflecting accomplishment and achievement.

Later on, I realised the accumulation and display of badges was prevalent even outside of school. Whether it is a Birkin bag, a Ferrari, or, more recently, a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT, badges reflect our status to society through association.

Instead of saying aloud, “I am wealthy”, which can come across as obnoxious and arrogant, a badge could be a representation of wealth or social standing. It is visible yet does not require the holder to self-proclaim.

It is, however, unfortunate when this seeps over to the education sector. Our skills, capabilities and potential are multi-dimensional, and the process of acquiring them is complex.

Yet badges over-simplify and distract us from what is important: learning and applying it in real-life situations to create value.

More and more badges

I believe the suggestion from the MP to extend the validity of degrees by taking more courses stems from good intentions. That is, to narrow the gap between the demands of the employers and the skill sets of the workforce.

Yet, pursuing more formal programs reflects the desire to collect more badges vis-a-vis the pursuit of knowledge and skills.

The underlying premise is there is always one more badge to gain, whether it’s a master’s degree after your bachelor’s, a doctorate after your master’s, or a continuing education course. And once this badge is attained, one might not just be more “ready” for the workforce, but the badge is also supposed to act as insurance against future setbacks.

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To be clear, I am not against badges. As a holder of a degree, I am very cognizant of how opportunities have coalesced as a result.

I am concerned about the false premise that collecting more badges, even those from esteemed institutions makes one more ready for the demands of the marketplace and the false sense of security from quantity.

When representation is not reality

Badges are designed to be representations. Holding a degree represents completing a minimum number of hours of education, but it is by no means an indicator of competence.

It is canon to hear employers across diverse industries talk about how some non-degree holders have outperformed degree holders. That degree holders need to stack more badges to stay relevant is confusing at best. We cannot solve the problem by doing more of what led to it.

The dopamine hit from collecting more badges makes it even more challenging. The sense of achievement and accomplishment of completing a formal course, program or degree is undeniable and even addictive.

Photos are shared widely on social media, congratulations pour in from family and friends, LinkedIn profiles are updated, and commencement speeches are pep talks on how one is ready to “conquer the world”.

Yet, it is too easy to forget that, until it is actualised in our work, badges remain as representations of what we can offer, not reality.

Radical ideas to mitigate badge-collection addiction

What then can we do to avoid badge collecting culture?

There are definite advantages of holding a badge, especially those just starting their careers. It opens doors and encourages others to take a chance on you, whether an employer is offering a job opportunity or an investor writing the first cheque into a company.

However, we need to dissociate badge collection from education. While both may occur simultaneously, it is entirely plausible for one to collect the badge without meaningful retention or application of what was learnt.

We should advocate for genuine learning and the acquisition of knowledge, not the collection of badges.

Secondly, we need to encourage and celebrate applying knowledge and skills to create impact more than the collection of badges.

As a former government scholarship recipient, my peers and I were celebrated upon being awarded the “scholar” badge. We had ministerial tea ceremonies, media features and invitations to share our “success stories” with juniors, all before we created any value to the public.

I recognise this privilege but wonder if we can create more opportunities to acknowledge and showcase real impact.

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What if we introduce career artifacts like case studies on how a social worker went above and beyond or video testimonials by students on their teacher’s impact and consider these credentials with more weight?

Furthermore, all public service scholarship aspirants can participate in a paid internship for a year or two as part of the application process instead of post facto. On-the-job experience is a much better indicator of potential than academic grades and hour-long interviews.

This also sets everyone up for success when 18-year-olds know what they are committing four to six years of their lives to.

Contrary to some who might consider the gap year a “waste” or “delay”, I argue that this is a valuable experience for both parties to test if there is a fit and a fair ask when the scholarship quantum is typically in the mid-six-figures.

Third, we can take a hard look at how we select, reward and retain talent. Is it based on badges or the impact created?

I am of the opinion that most managerial and executive positions, except for professions like law and medicine, should allow alternative substitutes for a degree.

A proven track record of value creation, whether in employment, projects or starting a company, should be given more consideration. There should not be cause to place individuals with different classes of badges (degree honours) on different pay scales. We should put all at the same starting point and evaluate based on merit.

Fourth, our government can continue pushing the boundaries and finding innovative ways to keep our higher education institutions relevant. One potential avenue to explore would be Income Share Agreements (ISAs) as an alternative to discounted school fees.

While novel, this setup could better align incentives between the institution and student. In exchange for paying less fees, a student can opt to give X per cent of salary to the university for the first five years of employment, for example.

With the outsized influence of economic incentives, I will not be surprised to see our institutions becoming a lot more adaptable and responsive to prepare students for the demands of the workforce.

Badges will continue to play an important role in the fabric of our society. For many, it offers recognition, which serves as a launchpad for opportunities.

Yet, let us not forget that badges remain representations, and we should celebrate the realisation of impact instead.

Both the public and private sectors have instrumental roles in shaping the narrative of how we view this, and we should instead shift the conversation to “radical” moves to change workplace expectations and attitudes.

Source: e27

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