Lessons from America point the way to better careers in Britain

May 31, 2014

I’VE recently returned from a fascinating and eye-opening visit to Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, as part of a global research group finding out how they do things over there. 

A system and structure for education is developing called College to Careers which has seen a tripling of the numbers of students finding careers on completing their courses. I think there are lessons we can learn.

What is different about the Chicago model is the way they have entered into a really impressive collaboration between educational institutions and employers. They’ve developed a curriculum specifically designed to match students with careers and to drive economic growth. It all hinges on different colleges specialising in one of six nominated sectors including Health, Transport and Advanced Manufacturing. 

To ensure that areas of genuine growth are targeted, there is a city-wide system for providing and constantly updating labour market information so that it’s clear that what’s being taught is relevant and of real career value. 

At the root of this system is the colleges’ collective realisation that trying to be a one-size-fits-all local provider meant they were all duplicating the same opportunities at similar standards. By specialising they can ensure they are offering the right qualifications with the right content and at high quality for real careers and improving social mobility in the process. 

Higher education in the city, private and public sector alike, is also ‘plugged in’ to the system. Degree courses lead on directly from those offered in colleges and are also geared specifically to those sectors of the economy which are growing. 

There’s a noticeable demand in the US, as there is here, for academic institutions to prove to their students that course content and quality will fully justify the effort and cost of their studies. To make this so, they are taking IAG (Information, Advice and Guidance) to another level. This is provided centrally rather than individually and cuts out unhelpful competition between providers, focusing on the needs of the student to learn and not that of the College to fill its courses. 

It is already the case that the government is expecting Local Enterprise Partnerships  to ensure IAG is better developed and delivered. LEPs are government-funding partnerships between business and local government designed to drive sustainable growth in their regions. 

What the Chicago experience shows is that the education eco-system is happy for a clear coordination and market information role to be centrally driven in order to ensure the system delivers the pathways students need in order to secure careers in high growth sectors. 

Could we not replicate this degree of collaboration rather than competition here in the UK and in our local region?

The government’s faith in competition alone as the prime driver for excellence misses the need to create a collaborative system that clearly signals the routes to success for students and businesses alike. Could it be that a model based on collaboration and coordination might actually be more effective? 

What’s more, rather than searching endlessly for ways of improving the content of existing courses, might it not be a good idea to make sure we know exactly what forms of training our economy needs? 

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