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The Case 25 January Jan 2021 0934 25 January 2021

Going beyond a degree: skills are acquiring ever-growing importance when it comes to finding a job

With its "Google certificates", Big G has launched a new training model where skills matter above all, not so much the degree someone has. And it isn't the only one adopting this view. Has the time actually come for us to bid farewell to dear old universities? We discussed this point with two experts

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If there's one thing that's been said for years, it's that the degree has become the new diploma: without the "piece of paper", it makes the quest of finding a job in the new millennium much more difficult. Or maybe not. As the new decade dawns, there are companies which are riding roughshod over this principle, while relaunching the theme of specific training, which can be obtained within a few months and is seen as being as valid as a degree. And one stands out among all of them: Google.

The world's number one tech company recently launched "Google certificates" based on specific courses, which can be obtained within just six months, at a cost of USD 49 per month. For the purposes of its internal selection, Google will consider them on an equal footing with some degrees.

So, can you skip 3-5 years of study, a load of fees and expenses, and still successfully work for one of the most important companies in the world? Of course, you can.

Giovanni Biondi, president of Indire (National Institute for Documentation, Innovation and Educational Research), has no doubts about this either. "What is needed today is skills, not a degree, because there is often a mismatch between both aspects. In the market for certain sectors, such as information technology, artificial intelligence, etc., it is skills that are required," he explains. Apart from being an expert on these matters, Giovanni Biondi has described for us his first-hand experience. "I have a son who had studied computer science at university and didn't want to graduate because, as he said: no one ever asks me for a degree anymore." He continued: "I pleaded with him to graduate, and he did so virtually as a personal favour. I'm definitely old-school in this respect: all he had left to do was his thesis. But he was the one who was probably right."

In a rapidly changing world, traditional (multi-year) educational pathways are struggling to keep pace with the rate at which technology is updated. Those who study engineering or computer science at university often have to learn, when they join a company, content and methodologies which they had never known anything about before. Companies need professionals with specific skills and they often carry out internal training to "form" their workers.

An interesting example of this is the four Motor Valley car tracks between Fornovo and Modena, which bring together Ducati, Dallara, Lamborghini and Ferrari. "Today's cars are so different from those in the past that you no longer need separate mechanical and electronic engineers, but someone who is familiar with both disciplines," explains Giovanni Biondi. As a result, the companies based in Motor Valley introduced four post-graduate courses where they teach with university professors and instructors from the companies to create their own disciplines. "They are breaking a rigid model. Nowadays, we need to overcome university discipline classifications. In Italy we have 372 disciplinary sectors, highlighting a level of fragmentation that runs contrary to what happens in the real world," says the president of Indire.

What is needed today is skills, not a degree, because there is often a mismatch between both aspects.

Giovanni Biondi, Indire

Therefore, universities are now endeavouring to perform in a way which meets the requirements and matches the culture of the outside world. "Education once used to promote upward social mobility. Nowadays, you graduate and find yourself out of sync with the world of work. The decline of universities is inevitable because they are tightly restricted. If you mention the topic of Big data, who deals with that area? Engineers, sociologists or economists? No one is able to deal with it alone, which is where we need multidisciplinarity. You cannot look at these topics from a single perspective. We continue to train accountants, but in a few years they will no longer exist," says Giovanni Biondi.

To help keep a grip on things and keep pace with the changing work landscape, Indire has become actively involved in two sectors. On the one hand, there are technical universities, with their postgraduate courses, offering highly specialised technical training ensuring immediate access to the world of work. On the other hand, there is the IUL online university, the only one of this kind formed by two public institutions, Indire and the University of Florence. These are two areas containing a description of how much the training environment is evolving, and the data speaks for itself. Technical universities offering courses on energy efficiency, sustainable mobility, technologies, made in Italy, cultural heritage and information are the training courses with the best employment success: 80% of students find work within a year. What is the key differentiator? 50% of the instructors come from the companies, 30% of the duration of the courses is carried out at the company site, and 50% of the courses use industry 4.0 technologies.

On the other hand, we have the IUL, an example which comes closest, due to the pandemic, to showing how universities should and can do things. Even though, Giovanni Biondi assures us, "non-attendance by students also existed before, remote learning was carried out in the same way". However, nowadays, an online university offers much more in terms of working tools, because it operates on a digital basis as standard, but without forgetting the need to carry out activities in the field, especially in certain sectors. "For example, some of the exercises featuring in the motor sciences course are performed in the sports field, using blended and staged situations, Because you don't have to digitally replace the activities which need to be carried out in the field. After all, digital can only empower."

Furthermore, the possibilities for online teaching fit well into the context of lifelong learning, the need to continue studying and updating your knowledge and skills throughout your life, in an increasingly fluid world of work. "If you think you're going to keep doing the same job, you're very much mistaken. Personally, I'm from a different generation, but my son changes jobs every four years. He needs to do this. He tells me: 'otherwise I don't learn anymore'," adds Giovanni.

Martino Bernardi is the researcher who coordinates Eduscopio, the annual survey carried out by the Agnelli Foundation on the ability of secondary schools, on the one hand, to prepare for the transition to university and, on the other, to prepare for the world of work, depending on the path students take. This year's edition highlights trends which seem to confirm the importance of going to university for graduates.

Martino explains: "Since 2014, there seems to be marginal but steady growth in enrolment rates for all fields of study, secondary schools and technical and vocational institutes." Especially among technical and vocational institutes, where the university enrolment rate is generally more marginal than that for high schools, there are some notable increases: "Among technical institutes, the proportion of those leaving with diplomas in technical and economic subjects who choose to enrol has increased between 2014 and 2017 from 36% to 40%, while the proportion for those in technical and technology-based subjects has risen from 33% to 36%. On the other hand, the proportion in the vocational sector went from 12.5% to 14.3%. The only exception is among those who obtained diplomas in industrial areas and handicrafts, where registrations saw a decline from 8.75% in 2014 to 7% three years later," says the expert.

Nowadays more than ever, we should be aiming to provide, for both graduates and non-graduates, STEM-related pathways so that children will have scientific and technical skills which will become increasingly relevant.

Martino Bernardi, Agnelli Foundation

Therefore, even among graduates who should naturally be focused on entering the world of work, once they have obtained their degree, university continues to establish itself as a valid choice. This outcome is also confirmed by the average of the marks obtained by students: "Generally speaking, in the last four years, the percentage of educational credits obtained (and therefore of university exams passed) has been slightly on the rise: from 56.2% in 2014 to 58.6% in 2017. This bears out the fact that in recent years students have worked harder and better. The same result can also be seen from the average of the marks: in 2014 it was 24.8%, in 2017 24.95%. There has been a slight increase but there seems to be greater effort involved," Martino Bernardi continues.

So, should we continue to see university as a safer bet in terms of finding a job? In fact, enrolling in university could also be a way for students to give themselves more opportunities, in the absence of any alternatives. Although some study pathways are theoretically work-orientated, in actual fact, the consistency rate between areas of study and the field of employment tends to vary greatly between the different fields and, in some cases, the gap becomes so wide as to leave you lost for words. While, in vocational education, almost one in two graduates (47% in the industrial and handicraft sectors, 45% in services) manages to find employment consistent with what they studied two years after graduation, technical graduates, on the other hand, pursue career paths which extend far beyond their areas of study: "Graduates in the economic field pursue a career path consistent with their area of study only in one case out of five, while the figure for those from a technology-based discipline is one case in three," adds Martino.

If the education system is unable to facilitate effective integration into the world of work, but leaves graduates instead finding themselves completely confused, is it worth them continuing their studies? "The transition rates from classical and scientific schools are around 95%. In the case of technical institutes, only one in three chooses to continue, with this growth being seen among those students undecided between one course of study or another. It is a deliberate choice to go to university, resulting from a renewed conviction about the benefits of obtaining a degree. It confirms what empirical evidence shows: there is a reward for obtaining a degree, compared to obtaining a diploma. This is also because graduates are still rewarded with better salaries compared to those who obtained a diploma," explains Martino Bernardi.

However, the issue of employability remains: if universities fail even to train students properly, the risk is only to put off resolving the problem until later. "In the next 15 years, professions will emerge which do not exist today. We do not yet have any degree course for these professions, but what is blatantly obvious is that gradually students will be faced with some obsolete professions, replaced by robots and artificial intelligence devices. Nowadays more than ever, we should be aiming to provide, for both graduates and non-graduates, STEM-related pathways so that children will have scientific and technical skills which will become increasingly relevant," concludes the researcher.

In short, universities may not become obsolete, as long as they take up, and not ignore, the challenge which Google has laid down for them.

When I was a kid, they'd say to me: if you don't study, I'm going to send you out to work. Nowadays, if you want to work you have to study," concludes Giovanni Biondi. "Universities in Italy are still paragons of excellence, but it's the university education model that we need to change. The proliferation of disciplines has been driven by a hunger for chairs and positions. We need to move away from this system and think in terms of outgoing skills. Nowadays, if you have a degree in engineering, it is the same whether you graduated in Bari or Turin. Instead of creating competition between universities, you need to create it based on skills. The description of the degree course should refer to the skills you will have when you leave. This is because whoever employs you will ultimately want to know if you have the necessary skills in certain areas."

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