Friday, September 14, 2012

Smarterer and the Future of Work & Education

Jennifer Fremont-Smith came to talk to us today about the entrepreneurial life.  She made a lot of great points about the pros and cons of taking that plunge, and I have notes...but for right now I want to just write a quick entry about the phenomenal concept behind her start-up, Smarterer, and what I think it means for the education bubble we keep hearing about, and for the American worker of the future.

Smarterer is a way to benchmark skills.  It uses tests, with questions crowdsourced to its users, and a fancy algorithm that I can't understand -- and don't care to -- in order to give users a quantifiable score in a skill, whether it's HTML5, PYTHON, Excel, or Brazilian Portuguese.

This is awesome. 

Anyone who has ever looked at a resume has wondered what it means when a person uses the "Skills" line to call himself "Proficient" in Excel.  I believe that I am, but really, my Excel skills are very limited compared to most of my peers.  But what about Spanish?  I say I'm "Proficient" in that, which to me means that I can watch a dialogue-based Mexican movie with no subtitles and laugh at all the funny parts.  To someone else, though, "Proficient" might involve cerveza, muchacha, and Donde esta el bano?  

And who's to say that anyone is fibbing?

If an employer needs someone who can really work some Excel magic, would I be misrepresenting myself with the "Proficient" description?  You can ask that question to a thousand employers and a thousand would-be employees, and my hunch is that you'd get about two thousand shoulder shrugs.

I'll admit, I haven't spent enough time on the site to know much more than the basic concept.  One thing that Fremont-Smith said that threw me off was that the certification tests on Smarterer were very short (as in, like, 10 questions or so).  But for the sake of this entry, the big takeaway ought to be the concept itself.  

Every day, we are hearing about the "higher education bubble" and the questionable return-on-investment for advanced degrees (and sometimes, for Bachelor's degrees too).  I'll even admit that I've come around quite a bit on this...when I first heard people bring up issues of appropriate courses of study and degree levels, I thought it reeked of the whole "slam-the-door-behind-you" problem (in other words, I saw it as a bunch of elitists giving advice about higher ed that they would never dish out to their own offspring).

Now, I really wonder whether people should pursue advanced degrees that don't advance a clear career path (in other words, going for an MD to be a doctor, a JD to be a lawyer, an MBA to get into management consulting, etc.)  I also wonder whether it's reasonable for people to major in Sociology and somehow expect the world to fall at their feet on graduation day....and I really would advise a close family member to very carefully consider choice of major, weighed against future employment prospects.

Anyway, back to the pin that could help prick this bubble:  If people could distinguish themselves with demonstrable skills, rather than degrees that don't serve a clear purpose or show that a certain threshold was met, they wouldn't need to throw themselves into permanent hock thinking it was somehow a wise career move.  Just think back to that line from Good Will Hunting about a fahkin education for $1.50 in late fees at the Pollard.  Or something like that.

Screw the people on both extremes w/respect to pedigree (those who use it to sneer at others, as well as those who carry chips on their shoulders so large that they can't let basic, easily searchable facts about access and cost get in the way of their opinions).

I'm not saying Smarterer is manna from heaven, the greatest thing since sliced bread, or any such hyperbolic thing...yet.  I don't know enough about the fine details and the uniformity of the standard.  Maybe the answers to those questions will even become someone else's better mousetrap.  But I am saying the concept is exactly the type of thing that can truly democratize post-secondary education, make job seekers more employable, and help hirers sift through resumes to find the people they really need, quickly.

Maybe someone will develop an app that can link needed skills, as listed by employers, with tests and prep material available on the site.  Maybe that will be a big first step in resolving the apparent paradox of people marching in the streets to complain about a lack of available jobs, and employers letting positions go unfilled as they complain about a lack of available, skilled labor.

Who can argue against that sort of future?   

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