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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

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Why the UK needs to better recognise informal learning achievement

How can we better empower people on their career development journey, no matter the route they wish to take?

Even before the current crisis, none of us really knew what to do about the adult learner hiding in plain sight. These aren’t people with secret identities (though many of them are heroes!). I’m talking about a problem, first formalised back in the 1970s, where people can acquire amazing skills over the years in the workplace, but their achievement in the existing education system just isn’t set up to measure.

If you never did a Finance & Accounting degree, but have been a book-keeper all your life and suddenly want to do a part-time university course, how should I classify you as an institution? As a beginner? That doesn’t really seem fair.

There’s a huge amount of learning that tends to be downplayed if it’s not somehow delivered in a few very tight structures. This seemed a bit short-sighted even before the rapid change the world of work is going through now.

So people in the American higher education system started to discuss whether there might not be some fair way to create a more level playing field here, and work out mechanisms for prior learning to be assessed for people wanting to re-enter the education system a little later.

If Ronald McDonald is waking up and smelling the coffee, and seeing that we all expect much more mobile and diverse careers now, then other organisations should be realising this too.

Introducing CAEL...

I’m sure this will be a very familiar problem to everyone in the TrainingZone community, but maybe not so many of us are as familiar as we should be with an organisation that’s been quietly beavering away in the background, doggedly trying to solve this issue. It’s a US-based outfit called the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), which is a Strada Education Network affiliate.

Upon my own research of CAEL I was struck by its commitment to improving opportunities for equitable economic and social mobility via supporting the kind of “iterative lifelong learning that enables adults to prosper in a rapidly changing economy” that I wanted to learn more. I got the chance to do that by sitting down with CAEL’s very impressive President, Marie Cini, who holds a doctorate in Social Psychology, has taught at numerous American universities, but who has also done some really interesting things at places like IBM, too.

(You can hear my full conversation with Marie in an episode of my Learning is the New Working podcast.)

If Ronald McDonald can do it, so can you 

Marie told me about a great and very representative CAEL project, where McDonald’s had seen a need for some social responsibility and had asked CAEL to build a special career exploration mobile app, Archways to Careers, architected to help all its American employees find out about the kind of education and benefits available to them to empower them to take the next step in their professional journey, and that includes not just in the Golden Arches, too.

Why? Because, Marie says, even if it sounds a bit perverse, corporations like Mickey D’s see help like this as a retention tool – it’s great HR. And if Ronald McDonald is waking up and smelling the coffee, and seeing that we all expect much more mobile and diverse careers now, then other organisations should be realising this too.

Marie’s parent institution has also seen the need for change. It’s morphed quite significantly from a two-year (Community College, in the States) degree talking shop into a much more diverse entity itself, with higher education still a big part of it but also secondary learning providers, regional development agencies, edtech firms and, crucially, big employers all now connecting up through its auspices.

“We need a variety of different perspectives now to achieve what we want to for the adult learner,” she told me. “And after all, everyone out there wants a healthy ecosystem developing a sustainable talent pipeline.”

Does the UK need its own CAEL? I think that was true even before the crisis. 

Is it time Whitehall moved to make our own CAEL?

While a lot less well-known than it ought to be, even in its own country, CAEL really is making a difference. It’s developed some great tools and IP over its decades of graft, work that helps employers and job-seekers but also the individual – Marie told me proudly that its latest Student of the Year was a terrific self-motivator who’d left high school early but is now completing her doctorate.

I left our meeting last September very impressed, but I of course now wonder  how all this great work is being impacted by our current global issue with this damned virus.

This is what she has told me: “CAEL is uniquely positioned to work across higher education, workforce and economic development, and employers to create new models for rapid recovery in a COVID-19 world. We are currently engaged in this work in two [US] states with more to come, and are mobilising at state and regional levels to create new programmes of work and to revise current services to respond to COVID. For example, we can help regions determine what new jobs or industries are emerging or have openings even during this pandemic, and create cross-occupational skills maps to determine who may be out of work right now but who possess the skills (or most of the skills) to enter such new jobs.

“We can also help learning providers create short-term certificates to help them bridge any skills gaps. Our model is to build capacity in the organisations we work with so that the work continues even after we end our work with partners, after all, so we are also creating new resources to support our members who want and need to serve their working adult learners through this difficult time.”

Inspiring words. Does the UK need its own CAEL? I think that was true even before the crisis. 

Now, I think it’s literally unavoidable.

Next steps?

As a learning leader, make sure you are plugged into your local academic networks including schools, colleges, vocational schools and universities as advisors on future skills requirements.

You can also conduct your own future talent needs assessments, and consider non-traditional or inclusive hiring practices such as apprenticeships, school-to-work programs, and internships.


Author Profile Picture
Chris Pirie

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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