Sunday, December 14, 2014

Should You Start An 'Employability' Training Business? Five Questions

As Education-to-Employment gap becomes worse, the popularity of 'Employability' training grows. This is a worldwide phenomenon: The government usually pays, and many micro businesses are set up every year in the hope that the students will also pay for it themselves. The format is usually cheap and cheerful: Bring in the learner for a few days, tell them how to write CVs, present themselves in the interviews, how to dress, how to shake hands and how to look confident. 

Since those people I know in this trade are not stupid, I would think that they are driven either by incredible optimism or sheer opportunism. How else can one believe that if someone was not employable before their kind intervention, they become one just by learning to do better handshakes? There is no denying that learning to write CVs, or doing better at interviews, are important skills; but these things can only work if the students know in the first place what they want to do, and have the right skills to do the jobs they want to do. 

Realistically, this is not the job that a 10 day training can do: This should indeed be the function of all the 16/17 years of education one receives before even walking into the 'employability' classes. However, the employability training makes the things worse by attempting to give the answers and pretending to bridge a gap what it can't. Instead of exposing the students to a process of self-awareness and preparation, employability training attempts to give them a magic pill, in a world where there are no magic pills. 

However, I come across well-meaning people all too often who wants to be in this 'space'. Having explored this a bit myself, I usually discourage them from getting in. The primary reason is that my belief that this 'space' is full of pretenders and charlatans, who have no skills other than that of cornering some government money, and their practices turn the field into a 'market for lemons', and one can't survive there with any scruples. But, more than that, I don't see, at least within the current practise, how any scalable and sustainable business can be built, which my correspondents are usually trying to do. They talk about the 'huge' opportunity, but usually don't have a model which can take things beyond that one or two schools they know themselves.

This doesn't, however, mean that I think no business models can be built: I just think that those wanting to get in have to think differently. One aspect of this is to seek to change the education system itself, which is what I am engaged in as a part of my day job. However, I also believe that there are other opportunities to create 'employability solutions' and have now developed five questions for the aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to get into this business.

Here are those five questions:

1. Can you build a sustained engagement? I have come to believe that it is not possible to make a student employable by a few days training, and this needs engagement over a longer period of time. In fact, this engagement should be sought as early in the students' lifecycles as possible, possibly in High School or earlier. If this is extra-curricular (which it is likely to be), the activities should be designed to 'nudge' the students into self-awareness and self-paced preparation, rather than posing employability as a quick-and-easy solution.

2. Can you build a 'Freemium' model?   The government supported employability programmes is where the scams are. However, the students don't like paying for the Employability programme, because the value of these programmes are uncertain. Any entrepreneurial model have to stand in the middle: Its engagement model should be based on a 'free' component which everyone can do, and then followed by 'Premium' service components which the students would want to buy.

3. Can you scale? This is indeed rather obvious but it is really difficult to scale these programmes. In a way, those who are successful in their careers are not available to train others, which leaves those with employability crisis in their hands to do the training beyond, indeed, the entrepreneur himself. This brings in the technology aspect, though I am often told that the students don't like technology. My point is indeed that using technology is better than using unqualified by trainers, but even before I get to that point, I am surprised that many people believe that the students can be made employable while remaining technology averse.

4. Can you make the students learn themselves? The prescriptive model of learning is mostly out of sync with a changing world, but more so in the Employability programmes. The students must be self-aware and find a path for themselves, picking up knowledge and skills along the way towards their desired objectives: If they can't do that. they are unlikely to be employable. This is a pedagogical issue, but this is also a business model opportunity. Indeed, in the world of MOOCs and YouTube, the content is hardly the problem - and indeed, this is precisely where the opportunity of premium services lie. However, prescribing courses is self-defeating, so one has to ask this as a separate question and not as a subset of Q2 or Q3.

5. Can you expose the students to the world of work? For all the engagement and training, there is nothing like the real thing. It is difficult to make anyone employable without necessarily exposing them to the world of work, either through internships, projects or more sustained employment. Again, this is an opportunity to build services, but this is absolutely integral to the proposition itself. And, indeed, a good programme will manage the exposure - it is not just about going to an office for a few days - and will have definitive outcomes.

Indeed, these are broad top level questions, but instead of going into the discouraging mode that I usually do when told about employability businesses, I have now decided to stick to these questions. I see lot of successful business models are being built, mostly in the developed world, ranging from boot camps to structured internship programmes, and indeed one could construct a business model drawing on these. But, to start, one needs to escape the temptation of following what is usually done - and be ready to innovate.

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