ASU + GSV Summit: Focus on the skills gap and retraining workers

Since its humble beginnings in 2010, the ASU + GSV Summit has grown to include thousands of educators, business leaders and policymakers. Co-founder Deborah Quazzo tells WorkingNation's Ramona Schindelheim that these groups are working together to solve the problem of the skills gap.

Who’s going to educate, train and reskill the millions of people whose jobs are at risk by the unprecedented speed of change in technology today? That was the focus of this year’s massive ASU + GSV Summit, the nine-year-old collaboration between Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley which brings together the latest innovations in education technology, potential investors, and potential customers.

“We like to say we have a strange cocktail. We try to bring groups of people together who don’t normally get together,” according to ASU + GSV co-founder Deborah Quazzo. “We invited 400 tech company CEOs to present. The other side of that market is obviously the practitioners—principals and superintendents, higher education leaders, and, in the workforce, operating leaders, chief learning officers, etc.”

Quazzo, who is also the co-founder and managing partner of GSV Acceleration Fund, and I sat down to talk at the end of the three-day conference that has grown from 200 people in 2010 to more than 4,100 this year. The agenda reflected the need to address the urgent, and growing, talent shortage and its potential impact on workers, education and businesses. “People are beginning to get it. There are massive demographic issues coming down the pike,” Quazzo said.

A McKinsey and Company forecast estimates that globally, by 2030, between 400 million and 800 million people will be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs. While many new types of jobs are generated, as many as 375 million workers could be displaced and will need to switch occupations and learn new skills, according to the report.

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Therein lies the problem, and the opportunity. “Corporate learning was always the stepchild in enterprise. When the budgets got tough, it was the first thing that went. The days of people buying millions of dollars of crappy corporate learning content, and just putting it on the shelf and people not using it, are over. That’s all changing. It has to,” Quazzo told me.

Many Fortune 500 companies have already started in-house retraining programs and have partnered with community colleges to ensure a robust pipeline of skilled workers. More work in this area needs to happen.

ASU + GSV co-founder Deborah Quazzo talks with Weld North CEO Jonathan Grayer at this year’s event in San Diego. Photo – ASU + GSV Summit

“I think it is going to get companies to get really active and innovate around whatever it is that is going to make people better,” Quazzo explained. “We’re investing in some companies that are working to help enterprises better personalize learning experiences for employees, helping them develop new skills that will not only help them retain their jobs but maybe aspire to another job.”

“Personalized learning” was often mentioned at the summit, referring to curriculum plans and direct instruction that is tailored the individualized needs of the person needing the training or reskilling. Another recurring theme at ASU + GSV was the need for higher education to take a closer look at what is happening in the workforce and transform itself to ensure people have careers when they graduate.

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“Historically, universities have felt they were sacrosanct. A couple of companies—Burning Glass and EMSI—are doing a lot of research, basically, to try to better inform universities about how they need to modify curriculum to reflect the workforce,” said Quazzo. She believes that four-year schools “are going to need to begin to be able to deliver things that students believe actually have value, or you may begin to see some universities going out of business.”

There was also a big push for career awareness in all levels of education, for K-12 through higher education. Children need to know there is a future for them and what they are learning has a practical end. “Kids are not engaged. They don’t see school as relevant. They don’t understand ‘why am I sitting here?’. What you are seeing is some very powerful players and visionaries like Strada and Lumina really forcing thinking along this continuum.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, Quazzo made a point that she hopes all educators, ed tech companies and employers hear and take action on: “Our motto: all people should have access to the future. And for the most part, we mean economic future. Right now, the K-12 system, the higher ed system and the workforce system of skilling, training and learning are certainly not giving that equity and access to all people and it’s going to become a real economic issue. Diversity is important, so is equity and access.”

You can read more about the summit highlights here and watch videos from the summit panels here.

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