Why can’t we all be on the same page? We’re a huge country, but why do we keep doing things differently from school district to school district, and state to state? The Core Standards was a foray into some uniformity, but we need to go further. I’m not calling for standardization, more an understanding we have pockets of brilliance in education as well as CTE.We seem to be re-inventing the wheel. For instance, with artificial intelligence, sure we’re pumping out lots of university graduates in STEM, but our numbers pale into insignificance when you look at what’s happening in China and India. We’re missing the boat on that one. They may not be a bad thing, but we need to have a plan B.
I had the pleasure to interview Nicholas Wyman. Wyman is a workforce development and skills expert, author, speaker, and CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation (IWSI Consulting). Wyman is a leader in developing skills-building, mentorship and apprenticeship programs that close the gap between education and careers around the world. IWSI Consulting works with a range of companies, governments and philanthropic organizations all across the globe, including Siemens, Nissan, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Wyman frequently lectures on workplace job innovations, and appears on national broadcast programs. He is a regular contributor to Forbes and Quartz, and was named LinkedIn’s #1 Education Writer of the Year. His award-winning book, Job U, is a practical guide to finding wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need. He is actively involved in school to work programs focusing on STEM education. A third-generation writer, Wyman began his own career by learning a trade. He was named Australian Apprentice of the Year in 1988 and went on to captain Australia’s gold medal-winning Culinary Youth Team. He has an MBA and has studied at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Doors seemed to close for me in high school because I wasn’t academic. In fact, my school discouraged me from completing my final year because they were worried their overall grades would take a slump. Yes, because of me. I had a problem with sitting still and memorizing, but really got into hands-on work. I ended up channeling my passion for cooking at my grandmother’s side into an apprentice chef role.
Even though it was challenging, I stuck at it and it paid off. I took out an award — national apprentice of the year — then captained a gold-medal winning culinary youth team in Germany. That led me to a role as a fish chef at a Michelin-starred Hotel in London.
Later on, supervising apprentices let me to a management role in corporate human resources. By age 40, I was ready for university and got a Masters in Business Administration and studied further at Harvard and the Kennedy School of Government. I created two non-profit organizations in Australia — my then homeland — specifically to help skill up young people and help match employers with apprentices and trainees my company would then manage for them. I also set up an international consultancy, IWSI America to help companies and governments expand skills based careers. And those moves really drove me to share my insights in my 2015 book, Job U: How to find wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need.
I had made the pivot to encourage and support others to consider career and technical education such as apprenticeships and traineeships. It worked for me and I was gob-smacked at how society seemed to regard it as a second-best career option like there was this secrecy about its benefits to employees and employers. They are too good not to share. Reflecting on my own experience, I hadn’t just notched technical skills, but a suite of soft or enterprise skills that I’m still finessing to this day.
Over the decades, I’ve built up this international expertise in CTE and I specialize in the skills gap and future workforce issues. It’s what keeps me raring to go every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I first learned how to make chicken stock under the watchful tutelage of an Austrian chef. This stock was an important base ingredient for many of the restaurants famous dishes. That night, eager to show off my newfound skills, I rushed home and made some of that very stock proudly for my family. A few days later, back in the kitchen, another chef, this time from England offered me the opportunity to showcase my new skill . “Yes, Chef,” I dutifully replied, and followed the Austrian’s recipe exactly, just as I had been taught. So I was more than a little surprised when he was less than pleased with the result.
“That’s not how you make chicken stock, this is how!” he exclaimed. I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong, until the hotel’s executive chef, pulled me aside for some words of wisdom. “Nicklaus,” he said in his Germanic accent, “when the English chef is in charge make it his way and when Austrian chef is in charge make it their way. When I am in charge make it my way. When you are in charge one day, make it your way.” That was when I realized there is more than one “right” way to make chicken stock. Of course, this story isn’t really about chicken stock. The point is that there is plenty of workforce and career advice out there. I’m not here to tell you what the right advice is for you or your company. What I am here to tell you is that when considering your next step, take in as much information and guidance as you can, but ultimately only you can make the decision about what career or workforce strategy will be the right fit.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There was a fair amount of work done to kick off a home-grown pathway to technology program that was launched in the bluegrass state of Kentucky. The Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet (EWDC) launched the Kentucky Advanced Technical College High as the state’s first college-high apprenticeship program. This is in partnership with Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC), University of Kentucky Center for Excellence in Rural Health, Appalachian Regional Hospitals, Juniper Health, and Hazard Independent Schools. That’s a solid panel of partners making it happen.
The program has five key elements: long-term partnerships, links to employment, industry mentoring and support, an innovative approach to work-based learning and apprenticeships.
In launching the program, the state’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary said it was a proven strategy for recruiting, training and retaining employees. The idea is that tye model uses the apprenticeship framework to further equip students with credentials and STEM skills essential for promoting and growing that state’s economy. I consulted to the program and am humbled to have done so.
The programs focus is to boost local students’ options to forge careers in the state’s fastest growing job sectors of health care and IT. It’s a program for grades 9 to 12 (plus 2) and sits neatly under the Kentucky Work Ready Skills Initiative. That means a seamless transition from school to work.
It’s a really exciting project and will offer some insights into how to customize this program into other states ripe for an apprentice-led recovery.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
When you’ve come up the ranks through an apprenticeship as I have, you can authentically speak about that ‘lived experience’ and offer something of a role model to others who might disregard CTE’s potential. Importantly, I’ve helped thousands of young people forge exciting career paths through CTE in the USA and Australia. I’ve also set up a pre-apprenticeship program in Australia that’s helping more than 3,000 senior high-school students get a taste of future workforce skills in a range of industries so they can access pathways — including CTE — to develop the skills employers need. Sure, a lot of it is about STEM skills, but I also put soft or enterprise skills on an equal footing. Also, I’ve kept up with the times and even done a bit of revamping to the concept through the ‘modern apprenticeship’ model I’ve helped role out in the state of Kentucky. Through my consultancy and other businesses, I’ve run apprenticeship and traineeship programs that have seen more than 16,000 young people graduate from around the globe. That’s thanks to strategic partnerships with companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Nissan, Exxon Mobil, Citi and many others.
I’ve written about it widely, notching the LinkedIn top writer on education a couple of years back, creating a best-selling book (Job-U), various industry reports and I regularly write for online publications such as Forbes and I’m active on social media.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The OECD’s PISA results are often what we examine when we’re talking about rating the results of the US education system. The release of the 2018 figures in early December shows our students aren’t improving in math, reading and science and that’s worrying. Those results echo the most recent findings from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the Nation’s Report Card.
It’s particularly interesting the OECD report seems to indicate throwing more money at schools won’t necessarily mean better results — and that’s a global phenomenon from what I can see.
The focus needs to be how we spend investment in education. My philosophy is that education and training need to be relevant, engage learners and lead to jobs and meaningful roles in society. It’s a lifelong journey of learning. The modern workplace favors those with solid, transferable skills who are open to continued learning. So, my perspective on the ‘results’ will always be looking through that kind of lens.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- We’re in the top 20: The United States is number 17 in the world for the best education systems, according to the non-profit organization, New Jersey Minority Educational Development. It draws on data to rank access to quality education and a safe learning environment. It shows more than eight in 10 people graduate high school — a good thing, but we have a way to go to meet the 2030 goal of everyone succeeding. The student to teacher ratio is 21:1, which I think is great, but the goal in 11 years is to boost that to 28:1. I’m not convinced that will improve educational outcomes if class sizes increase, plus I know 14% of schools are overcrowded already. It’s a contentious issue. The site lists a lot of other factors, but these are the two big ones for me as well as the US government pumping 5% of its budget into education. How much of that is reaching classrooms might be another matter though. The recent OECD PISA results showed the US spent more than $107K per student aged from six to 15, yet our students performed worse than Canada, Ireland and New Zealand which spent between 10% and 30% less. Ouch.
- A robust CTE system: All the elements are there to offer ‘earn while you learn’ pathways — such as apprenticeships and traineeships — to exciting careers. And that’s the full gamut from traditional trades to health care, IT, STEM and more. You know what the problem really is, though? CTE needs to come back into schools with more commitment and energy. I wrote about that in Forbes back in 2015 and it’s still relevant today. CTE enjoys a decent level of respect in countries with top-performing economies such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. When you think that the knowledge needed for the average today will do a total flip in nine months, it makes a lot of sense to learn on the job, rather than defer your wage by doing a college degree.
- The Common Core State Standards, which came in almost a decade ago and which more than half of US states have adopted, gives employers some sense about educational standards of their future young workers. I’d say it gives employers a little more confidence about the English and Math skills high school graduates will bring into the workplace. A key concept the standards trumpet is the need for literacy — I’ve heard it described as an anchor for social improvement and that makes sense to me.
- Teachers’ commitment — despite the low pay, student (and parent) behaviour management issues, constant criticism about learner outcomes and more, these professionals are really in a caring and educational sector. They’re putting students’ needs first. Often at the expense of teachers’ own families. Teaching is a big ask and the teachers I’ve known and heard about, well, they really don’t hold back on their enthusiasm and hours of hard slog.
- Immigrant students catch up: The recent PISA results showed one bright light among the dismal figures. The OECD actually compared immigrant and non-immigrant students before looking at their families’ and schools’ socio-economic profile. US News reported that our immigrant students were 25% less likely than their peers to be low performers in reading. It showed regardless of whether you have an immigrant background, you’ll be reading at the same level pretty much when you hit 15.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Improved CTE integration into schools: I’ll use the dramatic device of repetition — bring career and technical education for the fourth industrial revolution into schools where it belongs. High school students need a taste of different careers to broaden their horizons. They’re going to have seven careers over their work lifetime so let’s not limit them. We need to future proof them for the fourth industrial revolution — well, at least give them their best chance. The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act was a good move, but we need to ensure it leads to targeting students for whom it would be the best fit, we see decent outcomes, and that the career pathways and programs are second-to-one. It’s not just about guiding people into jobs, but sustainable, structured career paths or ladders even.
- Get serious about apprenticeship and traineeships: The US needs to better support businesses — from small to multinational — to take on apprentices to create a valuable pipeline of talent. For employers, we need to offer more incentives, information about best practice, and access to those who can champion ‘how to go about it’ and its benefits. We need to identify why businesses aren’t seeing these are their go-to option for creating the talent pipeline. For businesses feeling cautious about signing up for a four-year commitment to hire and train an apprentice, there are other models such as group training organizations. These can do the hard yards of managing, mentoring, sorting out health insurance for the apprentice who’s ‘hosted’ by the employer. It’s proving a viable and flexible option, particularly for small businesses. But, we also need to really trumpet apprenticeships and traineeships are just as worthy career pathways as a college degree.
- Focus on developing soft skills and personal attributes: As I’ve said elsewhere in this interview, these are key skills that will allow people to pivot through different workplaces, industries and careers. Meld such skill development within the curriculum, within teaching so when students graduate from high school, they’re job-ready and well on their way to being lifelong learners.
- Embrace micro credentialing: It’s here whether schools like it or not. Some schools are already allowing students to build a portfolio of micro credentials that will outfit them well for the workforce. I’d be chuffed if there was more progress with a universal system of credentialing — I know there’s work underway, but it feels like slow going.
- Work with artificial intelligence, robots & automation: Education is a human and caring sector and we can use AI, robots and automation as our ally or not. We need to assess, investigate, and be innovative with these technologies, but from an ethical standpoint. Are those algorithms sidelining particular minorities, genders or others? How can our young people be part of the conversation in shaping this technology that will impact them in a myriad of ways in their adult lives? Building STEM more seamlessly into schools from the younger years — such as from elementary school — as well as soft aka human skills is a way we can address these issues.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We can always improve what we’re doing.
- For me, it really comes back to CTE — integrating that into high schools again. That’s where you’ll see some excellent programs involving a range of businesses spanning various industries. It’s crucial you don’t have one company or sector drive these kinds of programs in schools as you risk making young people pawns of big business and its many pivots — spills and fills. Exemplary programs see students tackle real projects in workplaces and have this contribute to their CTE certifications and qualifications.
- Promote apprenticeships and traineeships as a valid way into STEM careers. On-the-job training is purpose built for the dynamic nature of business today and dealing with disruption from many corners. We really need to dispel the myth that apprenticeships are only for ‘the trades’ or limited to technical skill building. Apprenticeships are a very flexible pathway and a natural fit for many STEM careers. Research from the Center for American Progress shows that employers are predominantly hiring white males as apprentices. Just 7.4% of apprentices were women (going by 2017 figures) and 10.7% were black or African American. It found “too many workers — particularly women and black or African American workers — face difficulties accessing these programs, especially the programs that pay the highest wages”. This has got to be reason enough to promote the benefits of CTE and apprenticeships more broadly.
- Walk the talk:As a society, we need to get on board with education and STEM’s role in that. It’s everyone’s concern, not just educators, students and governments. Pointing the blame at overworked teachers and misbehaved/disengaged students goes nowhere. We all need to care more about education, be invested in it, support it, understand it’s potential. The way we ‘do’, discuss and think about education needs to be disrupted. And now. As a professor of AI, Toby Walsh (from the University of NSW in Australia) says, “much … knowledge becomes obsolete quickly … we’re learning more and more about less and less. He calls for education to become less specialized, instead focusing on fundamental skills that will stand the test of time. Teaching STEM cross-curricula through inquiry and project learning and a smattering of explicit instruction and building that into schools with involvement of industry, business and training providers, is a way forward. I’m meh about ‘back to basics’ — we need to move forward not backwards.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
In the US, there just aren’t enough young females studying STEM in high school. The Girl Scout Research Institute found that while girls were interested in STEM at age 11, they’d lost interest by age 15. And, their numbers dwindle in CTE, college and university and continue to do so once they enter the workplace.
Women hold less than one in five US tech jobs, despite making up more than half of our country’s workforce, says Digital events company Evia. You’ll find tech women as computer network architects, computer hardware engineering or computer and information research scientist roles mostly. On average, US women working in tech earn $53,616, just 84% of men’s salaries.
Evia’s report says: “Women now hold a lower share of computer science jobs than they did in the 1980s — the tech industry has expanded, but opportunities for women have shrunk.”
If you think that it’s enough to have women represent one in four positions in tech, you’re wrong.
Take one aspect of STEM — artificial intelligence. If we just have one echelon of society, sale young white males, writing the code and the algorithms on which AI makes is decisions, that means the perspectives, the richness and diversity of the rest of society is not reflected in those decisions. These are decisions that can have a huge ripple effect on our lives. Think about what happened in 2018. Amazon ditched its AI-fueled recruiting tool because it “didn’t like women”, Reuters said.
Gender does not play a difference in brain functioning. We know that because we’re not seeing this gender-flavored digital divide in parts of Europe or Asia. So what is it about the US culture that’s deflecting women from working and being celebrated more in STEM?
As a society, we need to support female students and workers to embrace tech as viable and sustainable work options. Shut women out of tech development, maintenance and expansion mean machines could sideline even ignore their perspectives and needs. That means the tech of the future could be skewed towards a male-centric view. We need greater female representation in the tech juggernaut and to build female perspectives into machine learning. By the way, if you want to find work in US cities with the slimmest gender pay gap, here’s Statista’s list of the fairest 15.
And if you don’t think the male ‘skew’ is a problem, check out the Global Media Monitoring Project. Every five years it peruses print and broadcast media for mentions of women. The last report, Who Makes the News, found that women accounted for not even a quarter of the people “heard, read about or seen in newspapers, relevant and radio news” in 2015. There was no change from 2010.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
If young women don’t see female role models in STEM teaching, careers, entrepreneurs and leadership positions in tech, government and industry, even in the textbooks students use at school, it’s just hollow talk. Nothing will change. The US isn’t doing OK. It needs to pull its finger out and support, fund and promote positive discrimination here to be more inclusive.
STEM-taster programs in high schools: More government and industry funding and collaboration to run STEM-taster programs within high schools across the country, not just where schools are check by jowl with tech companies in the same region. We need programs that don’t just corral young people into the type of jobs that employers think they need at that point in time. That approach makes our younger generation pawns in the employers’ eyes. It’s about empowering not creating fourth-industrial-‘factory’ fodder.
STEM education fund
Penalize medium and large tech businesses operating in the US that don’t get the gender balance right. Fifty percent female should be the goal. We’re way off it now. It’s about under 25%, so let’s aim for a 2.5% increase in the next 12 months; incrementally increasing. So, by 2023, we’d say 30% is the goal, and so on. Companies which don’t meet that target must pay a fine to a government-managed fund. Give it impact with a STEM Shame File which is made public — make known the names of those companies who don’t make the grade.
We need bi-partisan support at government level for this. We need clarity about how the funds are spent to increase girls and females’ participation in STEM subjects. Look globally for some great examples. STEM should be introduced in early childhood education to really spark interest and keep that flame burning for lifelong learning!
Forget parochial, we go nowhere being protectionist. There are already global organizations working on this issue — Catalyst is one that has a global reach in promoting the role, the place of women in the workplace.
Get back to basics
Have a thumb through a high school textbook about any of the STEM subjects. Chances are you’ll see men over-represented page after page. I support these researchers calling for a rethink about the depiction of gender in school textbooks. What’s concerning is they mention that even young children see scientists as male even if those students don’t know much about those roles. As well as seriously revamping textbooks, teachers can also better help dispel stereotypes when teaching STEM subjects. And consider why we think it’s ok to say “I can’t do math’, but not ‘I can’t write/read’? That means parents and communities need to think about what they’re saying around young children about STEM subjects. It’s a societal problem, not just one for schools.
Knocking down the barriers
I recently heard that in the late 1970s, the computing industry made math and physics perquisites for people wanting to study computing at college. The effect was to put a lot of women off careers in information technology, as this article explains. Before that time, women’s numbers had swelled in the computing ranks because it was seen as a career that celebrated logical thinking.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
Oh, boy, this one opens a can of worms. Since the US National Science Foundation coined the term STEM in 2001, a myriad of combinations has spawned. So, it’s not just a STEM v STEAM discourse, but something much wider. Actually, my stance is to embrace them all. Why? STEM shouldn’t be viewed in isolation — it’s part of a wider skill set. In short, it’s about the relevancy of learning as Vince Bertram, president and CEO of Project Lead the Way says.
We need to see connections, be able to pivot and of course, develop and hone soft skills or what are called enterprise skills. It might sound counterintuitive, but I ascribe to what author David Epstein talks about in his book, Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. He writes that the real leaders of innovation are those who inhabit several disciplines simultaneously. That means they can make unique connections that others wearing their discipline blinkers can’t. His high-level sample were Nobel prize winners — nothing to sneeze at there.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Review education — from early childhood through to CTE to university/college.
It needs to be seen as a continuum of learning and one which connects seamlessly to life-long learning. I really think such a review will really put CTE in the spotlight — it’s crazy that more people aren’t harnessing it for career pathways and employers aren’t investing. The tiny country of New Zealand looked at this whole range of education in its recent ‘education conversation’. It’s pumping out a lot of reports and strategies, so early days yet, but it’s the kind of thing the States needs to embrace.
Why can’t we all be on the same page?
We’re a huge country, but why do we keep doing things differently from school district to school district, and state to state? The Core Standards was a foray into some uniformity, but we need to go further. I’m not calling for standardization, more an understanding we have pockets of brilliance in education as well as CTE.We seem to be re-inventing the wheel. For instance, with artificial intelligence, sure we’re pumping out lots of university graduates in STEM, but our numbers pale into insignificance when you look at what’s happening in China and India. We’re missing the boat on that one. They may not be a bad thing, but we need to have a plan B.
Create a powerful CTE coalition
Bring together exemplar operators in this space, group training organisations, industry group reps, business associations, key employers of apprentices/trainees, training providers, independent consultants. Aim to create an evidence-based lobbying and marketing group, a clearinghouse for best practice examples from across the US as well as globally. Such a coalition is vital as a safety net to ensure any CTE-flavored program — such as tech training and workplace immersion that happens in high schools — is not dominated by one company. We simply can’t have a behemoth dictate what students learn in high schools. Consider if it’s biased to that company’s short-term terms, what happens to those students who invest in training and college debt for short-term careers, only to be turfed out a few years later. (Yes, sadly, this has happened). Importantly, a representative of the coalition would have a seat on an advisory group/council to the Federal Government.
Pay and support teachers more effectively.
It really rankles with me that we have teachers struggling to survive, who qualify for and need food coupons to get by. That’s a travesty.
Change the discourse about education to one of empowerment, national pride and adequate resourcing for all schools.
There’s way too much teacher-bashing. We need to move from a focus on teachers and teaching to a focus on education. Think about the discourse on health — we don’t talk about the dearth of nurses and nursing; we talk about health. Why does education need to be different and our debates seem to be through the lens of a deficit model?
Review how CTE and industry/business work together and turbo boost this for the 4th industrial revolution.
Urge the US to take leadership on creating/supporting a more universal (global) system for microcredentialing.
It’s big, it’s on our doorstep, so we need to deal with how people can and will amass qualifications, certifications and credentials such as through elearning and face-to-face instruction. We need to get a handle on this new way of learning — it’s a crucial way for our younger generations to be able to pace through their expected seven careers over a lifetime, some of which will be simultaneous.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The late self-help author Wayne Dwyer (although I like to think of him as a productivity expert from way back) said: ‘If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Just as one door closed for me which I was kicked out of high school for not being academic enough, another opened. Later, when I realized the issues around CTE, apprenticeships/traineeships that Australia was experiencing were common to the US, it prompted me to broaden my consultancy efforts and really take my thoughts to a global stage. Life ain’t black and white, that much I know! Plenty of hues in between.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Jeremy Rifkin, he’s the guy the leaders of the European Union went to for advice on tomorrow’s economy, the future of work and society. As a social and economic theorist, he’s written more than 20 books and is also an activist. Jeremy is definitely someone I’d love to meet, quiz and I expect to do a lot of listening! If you’ve heard of him, you’d know he talks about the “upcoming third industrial revolution”, but most of us in this space talk about the fourth industrial revolution. But his bent does make sense. It’s really a satellite view.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Absolutely, I really enjoy engaging with others via Social Media. They can connect with me via:
Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicholasmwyman/
Twitter — https://twitter.com/nicholas_wyman
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/thinkskilled/