The Rant

The Skills Revolution - A Conversation with Paul Fain, Higher Education Journalist

November 28, 2023 Eloy Oakley/Paul Fain Season 2 Episode 8
The Rant
The Skills Revolution - A Conversation with Paul Fain, Higher Education Journalist
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode I talk with Paul Fain, higher education journalist and writer for The Job.  We talk about the rapid rise in conversations in workforce training & higher education circles about the move toward a skills first framework. Paul discusses what he is seeing as skills and technology take hold in the policy and practice space. He also discusses what he thinks about the impact of AI on the post-secondary education marketplace.

Eloy:

hi, I'm Eloy Ortiz Doakley and welcome back to The Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, I get to sit down with an old friend and higher education journalist, Paul Fain. Paul is a former news editor, At inside higher ed and the writer for the job a weekly newsletter covering the connections between education And the american workforce paul. Welcome to the rant.

Paul:

Good to see you, Loy. Thanks for having me.

Eloy:

Well, it's great to have you on the podcast paul It's great to see you again. I know that you and I have Interacted over the years and we you are what we call in the business of veteran journalists in higher education So that otherwise means that you've been around the block a few times

Paul:

It's true. Time flies.

Eloy:

you've recently been focused on covering the changing landscape of workforce education and writing about things like upskilling of the American workforce. However, before we get into all of that. I want to spend some time in making sure our listeners get to know you. So, Paul, tell us a little bit about your education and professional journey, and what led you to your career in journalism.

Paul:

Yeah, it goes pretty far back, but I was a traditional liberal arts student, public university, University of Delaware, our president's alma mater.

Eloy:

there's hope for liberal arts majors.

Paul:

There is, definitely. It equips you for a fast changing economy and a challenge like, frankly, going into journalism. but yeah, I was political science history major, didn't study journalism, took one class, didn't get a great grade. I didn't get in that class, to be honest, but I, I had some experiential learning. I worked at the college newspaper. That's where I got the bug. And, uh, you know, despite being behind, didn't do the right internships or any internships, that, that gave me the experience that before, frankly, the, the rug was pulled under journalism, I was able to get in by the skin of my teeth.

Eloy:

you mentioned things like the, the right internship or getting enough information about to succeed in the career that you wanted to go in. Does some of that stay with you and stick with you in your coverage of higher education as you go forward?

Paul:

It does. Mostly, frankly, in thinking about the labor market and the really tough questions that we have about when is college a good investment, you know, it was for me, unequivocally. I was very privileged in my higher ed experience. That said, if somebody asked me, should I go and take out a lot of debt to go be a journalist? I would say no. It's honestly, it's one of those, the Times did a story. Mid pandemic about a journalism program at a public institution, and it was, you know, in the University of Pennsylvania, written from the standpoint of the tragedy of the cut. And it is sad. People lose jobs when the journalism department went away. But, wow, really tough to break into this industry from an open access public.

Eloy:

Right. I know, in my day job at college futures, we support. Organizations like, open campus and support, internships for education journalists at, uh, outlets like CalMatters and EdSource. But it's, it's interesting to think that we've come to this point. I know when I was growing up in higher education. when I was at Long Beach City College, there was an education reporter that showed up to every meeting, uh, every board meeting of the community college district, of the school board, that all has gone away, and, I don't think we're a better organization education system because of that. I know we're getting off on journalism, but, uh, but do you have hope for, for journalism in this space or is the answer, the nonprofit sector?

Paul:

Yeah, look, I, it's not always pleasant to have journalists watching, but it's good for society and the impact on local news is tragic and serious for this nation. I'm appreciative of the efforts of your institution and others for helping local journalism. Um, you know, I don't know, I think, I think there's more value than ever in certain ways and people do see that. the business model is very imperiled, uh, unless you're at one of the biggies like the New York Times, the Journal.

Eloy:

I think we could probably talk about local journalism. The entire podcast and maybe we will come back and just talk about that. but for now, let's talk about your current, endeavor. you are covering higher education. You've covered higher education for many, many years. I know we interacted when you were at the, at insight higher ed, which was. One of the few national journals that was covering community colleges at the time. And now you're writing a lot about the changes that you see happening in the higher education landscape. What strikes you as some of the greatest shifts in the higher ed landscape that you've seen in recent years?

Paul:

Well, first of all, thanks for the access over the years, by the way, including my time at Inside Higher Ed. I mean that sincerely. You were always open to our calls and candid with us. Um, you know, the big, the big shift is the enrollment crisis, which First was slow moving and then not slow moving during the pandemic, as you know well, particularly with community colleges and open access institutions, I think. In front of what we all know, uh, the impact of declining birth rates, and the Great Recession, probably, what do you want to call it, the enrollment cliff, I hear that term now, but definitely enhanced challenges, You know, big challenges, particularly in some states and regions to come. And, you know, I think along with that, questions about the value of higher education. I'm going to be very careful about what I'm saying there. What I, to me, the big shift was Seeing the data that we all kind of knew was true, but was maybe even worse than we thought of how hard it is to change a student's economic and social mobility in this country. I'm talking about the research from Raj Chetty and his compadres now at Opportunity Insights, just showing that it doesn't work for most students in most places as well as we'd like. I think that's safe to say. And you know, the pandemic, I think, showed why. And just really kind of made bare the challenges and how privilege replicates itself in ways that are very hard to curb. Like, I think about this a lot. The word mobility. I'm a word guy. It means somebody's got to give something up for somebody to come, to come up. And we don't do that very well in this society. You know, but to your question, uh, in addition to that data, just seeing the value of social capital. And getting a better sense of, you know, it's not just completing, it's getting that job, and it's not just the first job. It's finding a career and seeing how much work we have to do there.

Eloy:

Right. Do, do you see the changes happening, and discussions happening similarly across a the different sections of post secondary education, community colleges, four year universities, selective, private, or do you see different conversations and different changes happening depending on what type of post secondary institution you're in?

Paul:

Absolutely different conversations. You know this well. You can't generalize about anything in higher ed. I mean, what happens at a California community college versus one in Montana or, you know, whatever. It's, even within sectors and regions. California. Good luck generalizing about California, you know. that goes without saying. Yeah, I do think that the, even the highly selective wealth, very wealthy institutions are feeling some of this pressure. At least seeing the backlash and it, the challenges manifest differently, and frankly, I'm not that worried about the highly selective institutions. I mean, but they do, they face some challenges, more maybe than they have before. You know, we've got those tenure bills in some states, some legitimate culture war driven challenges for them. But for the rest of higher ed. It's, it largely is around those two big shifts I, I discussed and how to deal with them frankly. And, and you know, I guess I did, I should say that the business model. And how that all shapes up what, you know, during the pandemic, you had a lot of federal backfilling that has gone away.

Eloy:

The business model is going to be a challenge. I think. some institutions are beginning to wrestle with it. Some are just still waiting for things to go back to normal in their minds. But, um, I just don't see things ever going back to the way they were pre pandemic. Oh, and one of those areas that I think are not going back is this continued. Conversation and focus on skills. written about it in the job. one of your last posts was about IBM and the skills first framework. When people in this space talk about a skills first framework, What do you think they mean and and how do you how do you explain that to your readers?

Paul:

It's honestly one of the toughest challenges in my journalism career because it can be so narrow. It can be technical questions about learning and employment records. Or it can be companies dropping or states dropping degree requirements. It can be competency based education. It's, it's all of that. And I think being really clear about what piece I'm trying to write about is, is the key, because it gets messy. Um, and I think folks can really confuse things. Like, I think, say, for example, and this is a controversial one, if you've dropped a degree requirement as a state, whether or not you succeed in making a big change, that's a good question. The The question that seems to be coming out a lot right now is, are you against the four year degree? And there's a bit of a leap there that I don't think you can make in all cases. And it's, it's just, it's very challenging. But I think, to me, the centerpiece of it is pretty clear. It's, you know, when done right. These conversations, it's about valuing what people know and can do. outside of a credential or in different ways than traditional credentials have. And I think most people could get behind that. You know, I don't, that isn't necessarily a controversial concept, but executing it, making changes and things like hiring, uh, not easy at all.

Eloy:

Right. Well, I would certainly agree with you that it is pretty messy right now I mean there are various elements I know Organizations like jobs for the future are putting a lot of their weight behind clarifying what a skills first framework is all about my last podcast. I had Maria Flynn talking a little bit about that. And I think, as you said, when done right, this is about equity. This is about not. Moving away from, a bachelor's degree as the end game. but thinking more about what happens in between. How do you learners a benefit of their experiences, their learning? How do we better translate that into, job skills and competencies to give them a leg up? In this fast changing, workforce, uh, and it's also, I think, an equity issue. Uh, we continue to move the goalposts on learners. You know, there was a time when a high school diploma was enough to get into a decent paying job. Now it's a post secondary credential, or it's a bachelor's degree, or it's a master's degree in computer science. Uh, so, Part of this as well is, is how do we, how do we right size, what employers are looking for and what kind of skills that, learners are, are obtaining. do you feel that, um, the conversation is beginning to gel or do you still see it as a very disparate conversation happening throughout the country?

Paul:

It's a big shift and one to be taken seriously. I, I think you're asking the right questions though. You know, we haven't really done a credentialing conversation in this country, at least not one that I have seen, certainly not in the level of the student debt conversation, to pick an example. you know, there is some research from the Upjohn Institute recently that, despite all the degree requirements, It hasn't actually moved the needle, big surprise, and actually graduate degrees, uh, you're seeing they're gaining in the job market. So it's going the other way, right? And you know, to me, the real question here is, are we okay with that? Would we like to change that? I think most people would say, you know, we do want to open opportunity to folks who don't just have graduate degrees and tend to be wealthy. In their upbringing and their current experience, but you know, there's also this question of what if we don't, what if, you know, all of this campaign to move beyond the college degree does is to make people who might benefit from college feel better about not going to college and you don't move the needle that that is a real risk, but to me, I think you have to ask it very clearly. Is the risk enough that we don't even

Eloy:

hmm. Mm

Paul:

You know, I don't know. I'm not sure I would say that, but you know to break it into more specific terms. A lot of this debate is about four year degrees. Both sides, and I hate that it's a both sides thing, but it is, it's pretty binary, try to kind of incorporate the two year degree or certificates from community colleges into their point. You know, like, I think that dropping a four year degree requirement, if it opens the door to a graduate from a community college, that seems like a good thing. And, you know, I think we should be really clear here. What are we, who are we talking about? And who are we trying to help? An opening opportunity for folks who go to community colleges seems like a pretty hard one to be against.

Eloy:

hmm. I agree, you know, the example that drives me crazy the most, and it's probably because, you know, I spend so much time in community colleges, and when I was at a community college in Long Beach, we had, you know, one of the oldest nursing programs in the state. But just seeing the transition from, you know, hospitals and medical centers hiring, RNs who just had an associate's degree in nursing to then requiring the BSN. And every time I would talk to the hiring managers at those hospitals, they'd tell me, well, your graduates are great. they are some of the best nurses we have, but the federal government is incentivizing us now to hire, BSNs. It's just, confounding to me how we just changed that requirement and it's had a huge impact. On on nursing programs, and it's created a much costlier path to becoming a nurse So that's just one of my pet peeves.

Paul:

I agree. Absolutely. And you know, I have to say, I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna here, but I think that the extreme crisis in healthcare with the workforce, and particularly nursing, gives me some confidence that governments, employers, as a key partner, and higher ed can work together to figure out when those degree requirements should be set for what. You know, I would love to see it, but I think the pull from industry to do things differently is real and in that industry more than any, frankly.

Eloy:

Now, speaking of credentialing. You've recently written about conversations on the Hill, regarding the debate over short term Pell. this is the drive to open up Pell to shorter term credentialing programs, to help, upskill or reskill, individuals who are trying to get into newly created jobs or, enhance, or improve the skilling of the American workforce and to have the federal government get behind that. Where are those discussions and do you see that there is enough momentum to actually lead to federal policy?

Paul:

It's a great question. You know, one of the things I like about covering workforce education is that it is strangely non partisan. Not completely non partisan, but certainly compared to four year higher ed. You know, I sometimes listen to folks from red states and they sound like they're from California. Maybe they're using different words, but it's the same goal, right? Like, opening opportunity, creating more on ramps to education and training. And, That said, you know, this proposal is bipartisan. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat Senator, is the proponent of one of the three main bills. They've found a lot of agreement, the Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans in the House have guardrails to prevent bad actors that are pretty strong, I think. I haven't heard many people say they're not strong enough, to be honest. So that makes you think that this will happen. You know, but I put a headline on one of my pieces recently that said the proposals were in limbo and I got a call from a lobbyist. He said, it's worse than limbo. It's, it's in the, it's in the bad place. And, you know, you know, the reason it's the same sticking points that so many things have, have gotten stuck on in higher ed, for profit colleges being a big one. Should they be eligible? I just don't know that That debate is gonna, the way Washington works right now, it's complete dysfunction. It seems like that one is holding it up and it's anybody's guess. But, you know, some people say you can be stalled for a long time, that can happen overnight in Washington too. So, it may happen. It's a very popular bipartisan solution that has some big challenges.

Eloy:

we will keep our fingers crossed but you're right. I mean this debate has come a long way. It is a bipartisan debate and I think we're hopeful that we'll see something, something come out of it that's positive. now speaking of challenges you've seen and, read and, and heard a lot about concern regarding the impact of Artificial intelligence on jobs. And you've heard a lot of institutions and third party intermediaries talk about using GAI to support learners. How are you thinking about this issue? And, and do you see things in your coverage that concerns you?

Paul:

Absolutely. And, I'm not an early adopter of technology myself. I'm a skeptic, even a cynic sometimes about technology. I have to say that the more I hear from smart people, the more I think this is a biggie. This, this is not going to be adaptive learning or MOOCs or some of the other tech. Innovations we've seen that haven't done anything close to what people think. And it's, it's a framing question, like, where should we even be looking? You know, let me let me be clear. I feel like a lot of the coverage and turning it back on journalists here. It's well, you know, our students going to cheat on essays, really small fry stuff like, hey, people like there are bigger, bigger challenges here. Or, you know, the robots are coming. The apocalypse of jobs, you know, and frankly, those are serious, too. But in the middle there, there's a lot of nuance that I get the sense. The main thing I want to convey here is people are desperate for help, for guidance, how to react to this incredible challenge. My analysis from smart people is right, and this is like a Gutenberg printing press level technological change, and one, frankly, that's going to go fast, faster than we can even understand, like, if you are seeing mistakes in chat GPT, well, you won't be seeing as many of them in, you know, three weeks. It's, it's not like many, many other tools. We, I, I feel like there's a bizarre lack of accessible information. You know, the big consulting firms are spending billions of dollars to help companies with this. That's another, more evidence, I think, that there's just this desperate need to understand it. So like, to your point about jobs, is coding in trouble? Probably. In my gut, in some of the early things I saw was Any coding can be easily replaced. So if you're in that business of providing that, or trying to get into it, you've got to think differently. But it's not that easy. We're already seeing, you know, it can replace a lot of the front line coding tasks. You can harness it. Who gets to do that? What, what kind of frontline workers can use it to their advantage and who can't? These are the sort of questions that are enormously difficult and I think everybody needs help. And I've even been asked by K 12 districts to start talking about this and I'm like, you can't find anyone better than me. But, but seriously though, like, I think just starting with the big, big question of. How do we even think about the role of the human in teaching, learning, and work is really hard on this. And, you know, it's not just going to be front line, lower income workers who are affected. Like, my job is being affected. I'm going to use AI this week to help pull together some of my notes as a first draft for something. And, like, I can see the day, it's not hopefully right around the corner, but where my newsletter could be done. by AI in ways that might replace me. So I think we all have to think about this. It's going to change something like 85 percent of jobs by 2030, according to some estimates. So it's a biggie. even just the way that the questions play out with time. The human brain is not well suited to, but I think being open to information that is difficult is a key to, to how to navigate this moment.

Eloy:

I agree. The moment is coming and I think we have to continue to find ways help shape this in a way that we are supporting learners. We're not disadvantaging learners, that we're supporting workers, we're not disadvantaging workers. And that'll, that'll be the challenge. That's not, we don't have a great history of implementing new technologies in ways that help, those who have, the least opportunity, but, We'll see. We'll see what happens and I'm sure you'll be there to cover it. So, speaking of what you cover, as we begin to close, Paul, why don't you tell our listeners about the job? for those who have been living under a rock and aren't reading the job, how do they find your work and what kind of things Thanks. do you expect to cover over the next year?

Paul:

it's, it's a free newsletter. It's weekly, it's available at work shift. So it's just workshift. opencampusmedia. org. and we produce a decent amount of content on WorkShift as well. It's a complimentary publication. But the goal is to widen the frame, from just focused on higher education to everything from K 12 up to corporate training to jobs and to try to talk to employers and government officials as much as higher ed folks. But with a real focus on open access institutions, lower income learners. Again, I think the real challenge, as you just said, is, how do we make sure that this moment we're paying attention to people who are underserved? And, you know, I, you know, I remember, I have to say I the microphone was flipped around. I was interviewing you during the early pandemic and you said something about really looking back at the lessons we learned during the first reset the Great Recession. to try to make good decisions in this challenge, and I am hopeful. you know, and that's, that's the newsletters about that a lot. It's like, where are there experiments that are worth watching that can be duplicated? And it's often about states that are trying things at the state level. I feel like there's a lot of movement to try to tighten the connections between education and work, and to look at other states and how they're doing things, because, you know, there's some real need and real challenges out there.

Eloy:

Well, I couldn't agree with you more, Paul. And because of journalists like you, I think we're much better informed. We have a much broader view of what's happening and we need people to be asking questions, of us in the education industry. So listen, thank you for joining me here on the rant. And I really do appreciate your work.

Paul:

Thanks Eloy. Thanks for having me and I'm really glad you're doing this podcast. Keep it up.

Eloy:

All right. Well, thanks everyone for joining me here on The Rant. If you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button, follow us on this YouTube channel, and make sure that you're following us on your favorite podcast platform. Leave us your comments, let me know what you think about the Skills First framework, about the impact of AI. On the workforce and please do follow paul fein's newsletter. It's a great newsletter So thanks for joining me everyone and we'll be back to you soon.