I attended the Southwest Pathways Conference this past week in Scottsdale, AZ. Influencers flew in from across the U.S. to share learning best practices, brainstorm ideas, and plot paths for driving change in education models. For me, it was an insightful exercise in how government and educational institutions are repackaging their products to best meet the needs of emerging leaders. A common theme was that not everyone needs a 4-year university degree to create an upward spiral of personal success. In many cases, apprenticeships, career and technical education, entrepreneurship, or stackable credentials may be equally as valuable for an individual to find his/her identity.

Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, gave an introductory keynote and discussed the ways ASU is charting a new course in higher education and how important social mobility, innovation, adaptive learning systems, and giving every student the ability to focus on his/her unique identity is. He believes that parents’ circumstances shouldn’t determine their kids’ fate and ASU is trying to break the traditional education model of social status being achieved through success at the university level.

Two weeks ago, I attended the Financial Executives International’s (FEI) 2015 Summit in Boca Raton, FL. There were incredible speakers, hundreds of subject matter experts, and significant opportunities to consider what competencies are necessary for success in the 21st century. This gave me perspective into what for-profit businesses want from the emerging labor force. Here are a few of my key takeaways –

  • Experts from Ledgent Finance & Accounting discussed the fact that the #1 reason a candidate choose a firm is workplace culture. They talked about the value of creating an environment filled with challenging work, having a detailed path to individual success, and meaningful professional development programs.
  • Stephen M. R. Covey, author of Leading at the Speed of Trust, talked about how the loss of trust is the biggest challenge facing our world, that you can’t create enough rules to replace a high-trust culture, and that trust is an economic driver… not simply a social virtue.
  • Chris McChesney, author of The 4 Disciplines of Execution, spoke about the research showing the #1 driver of engagement at work is when people feel like they’re winning, feel like their achieving. He astutely reminded the audience that corporate citizens are almost always taught strategy, but they’re rarely taught execution. If you want to execute, you must be simple and transparent. Complexity is a killer, don’t “overgoal” organization as its not about doing more with less… it’s doing more on less.

I saw what educational institutions are doing to prepare future generations of emerging leaders and I saw how business is evolving to leverage the talent. Instead of squeezing the last bits of efficiency and profit out of an old model, let’s use an entirely new model. In this case, career pathways. Let’s help students explore their options… not tell them what they should do based what their parents did or their socio-economic status.

Joyce Barden, CPA, CGMA, CBM is senior professor at DeVry University in Phoenix, as well as accounting program chair for DeVry’s Phoenix area campuses. Joyce and I exchanged emails recently and she supported the importance of educating our students differently. “Employers are seeking candidates who possess strong technical accounting and financial skills, but these aren’t the only qualifications of today’s certified public accountant. CPAs are increasingly tapped to advise senior management and help make important business decisions, making job seekers’ “soft skills” just as important as their ability to crunch the numbers.” Barden reviewed how important communication skills, technological competence, business acumen, and leadership skills are to accounting professionals. DeVry offers a multitude of options to help train these “new” accountants for the businesses Covey and McChesney advise.

Regardless of the path they chose, we need to continually ask our youth “What problem do you want to solve?” and offer a multitude of pathways to empower students to take charge of their own learning. We shouldn’t have just one education model… we should have many that evolve continually. Instead of formal training (where only 10% of human learning occurs) purely on technical skills, we need experiential learning (70% of human learning). With this, we can develop the soft skills and career readiness Barden is teaching at DeVry, the focus Crow at ASU is creating on diversity and inclusion, the spirit of societal trust Covey talks about in his book, and the discipline of execution McChesney trains leaders on.

As you consider the variety of pathways available to you and your loved ones, remember that the greatest use of life is to spend it on something that outlasts it.