Schools are gearing up for another academic year and politicians are cranking up the rhetoric (heaven help us) as the election approaches. The quality and cost of education no doubt will be among the top debate subjects as the presidential candidates slug it out this fall. As the parent of a freshly minted kindergartner, I get why this is a compelling issue. But as the founder and owner of a technology consulting and training company, I wish the debate could be expanded to include lifelong learning. Specifically, how to encourage lifelong learning, particularly among minorities.
My company celebrated its 25th year in business with a Learning Summit in August. Rather than just host the typical cocktail reception, we wanted to give something valuable to the many customers who have helped to make us a success. For my Intertech colleagues and me, the opportunity to learn something new is among our top priorities. Thus, a free Learning Summit was our solution to celebrating in a meaningful way with customers, employees, family and friends.
Naturally, several Learning Summit presentations focused on technology topics. I ended the afternoon by sharing what I’ve learned about building a stronger company through employee engagement. I also shared some of our hiring strategies, which includes requiring serious candidates to take a personality assessment to ensure that their values match those of our company.
Seeking a passion for learning
One of the guests asked me if that assessment limited diversity at our firm. Initially taken aback, I then realized that the assessment actually encourages diversity. Rather than evaluate candidates based on observable traits, such as ethnicity, we work to identify people who think in ways that we know leads to success. Chief among the traits we look for: a passion for learning new ideas and technologies.
Why is lifelong learning so important? In the IT industry – with new disruptive technology continually emerging – it’s literally the only way to stay competitive. I have a strong feeling that this also is true for many other professional fields. In my personal experience as a company founder, I have invested in my own leadership development through executive education programs at Harvard, MIT and the University of Minnesota. Honing skills, learning from others and building a professional network all are valuable outcomes from this type of investment.
Lifelong learning seems like a no brainer, especially for anyone who worries about long-term job security. A recent Pew Research Center on “Americans, Lifelong Learning and Technology” confirms that many working people agree:
- 63 percent of those who are working (36 percent of all adults) have taken a course or gotten additional training in the past 12 months to improve their job skills or expertise connected to career advancement. Pew calls these people “professional learners.”
- 65 percent of professional learners say their learning in the past 12 months expanded their professional networks.
- 47 percent of professional learners say extra training helped them advance within their current company. Another 29 percent say it enabled them to find a new job and 27 percent said it helped them to consider a different career path.
Now the disturbing findings: “As a rule, those adults with more education, (higher) household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world,” notes the research report.
For many, ‘the internet is more on the periphery’
“These findings offer a cautionary note to digital technology enthusiasts who believe that the internet and other tools will automatically democratize education and access to knowledge. … For significant minorities of Americans with less education and lower incomes, the internet is more on the periphery of their learning activities.”
The report also states that “African Americans and Hispanics are less likely than whites to have pursued personal learning activities in the past year.”
Politicians and community leaders who are interested in leveling the playing field for all Americans should address how best to help those with less education gain access to the internet and to mine the wealth of learning resources it affords. Maybe it’s as simple as creating awareness of access available today through institutions like libraries.
As the Pew Research Center notes, “the educational ecosystem is expanding dramatically yet many Americans are unaware of such concepts as distance learning, The Khan Academy (which provides video lessons for students on topics related to math, science, the humanities and languages), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) now being offered by universities and companies, and digital badges that certify if someone has mastered an idea or skill.”
Employers should foster ongoing learning
If we want our businesses to stay competitive, leaders and employees must keep learning. Employers should build learning goals into employee performance plans and back them up with time off and training budgets to make the learning possible.
Ambitious individuals, including minorities who feel left behind, need to make learning a top priority. It’s not a cliché: Education, truly, is the great equalizer.
Grasping the myriad learning opportunities afforded by the internet, perhaps, should be the first lesson.
Tom Salonek is the founder and CEO of Intertech, a St. Paul-based IT consulting and software training company. Salonek is the author of “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
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