My interest in this topic was piqued in 2012 when the McKinsey Center for Government released a report entitled Education to Employment: Designing a System That WorksShelly Alcorn, who was producing a vodcast at the time, invited me to talk about how the findings of the report might affect associations. It was a great conversation and the topic stuck in my mind.

In 2016, Shelly and I returned to this issue and co-authored a white paper, The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, addressing the crisis brewing in the global education to employment system and the unique role we believe associations can play in solving it. Higher education is experiencing massive disruption due to decreasing public funding, rising student debt, and fundamental disagreements between students and educators about the purpose and value of a four-year degree.

At the same time, one-third of employers report struggling to find qualified workers, and what those workers are missing is 21st century skills: critical thinking, problem solving, oral and written communications, teamwork, ethical conduct, decision-making, and the ability to apply knowledge.

Indeed, some of the trends that we identified in the white paper, like rising student debt, decreasing student readiness for the workforce (the “skills gap”), and the accelerating impact of automation and artificial intelligence, have only gotten more pronounced in the two years since it was released.

Associations exist to help our members solve their most pressing problems and achieve their most important goals. What is a critical goal for virtually everyone? Finding a good job, keeping that job, and then finding a better job.While the specific skills and competencies people need will vary greatly from industry to industry, people want to make progress in their careers.

Associations are uniquely suited to addressing this. One of our superpowers is the direct connection we have to employers. We have existing trusted relationships with the people doing the hiring. They know what skills employees will need today and in the future to be successful in the professions and industries we serve. We can work together with employers to figure out what skills will be needed and plan the training our members will need to acquire those skills.

Association are also holding ourselves back. The white paper includes case studies of four associations that are doing great work in helping young people and mid-life career changers acquire the skills they need to be successful and “earn while learning,” and Shelly and I know there are many more we could just as easily have featured.

However, the other players trying to solve the education-to-employment problem are national governments, major international NGOs, and university systems. It doesn’t matter how outstanding your program is. As a single association serving a single profession or industry, you’re never going to get invited to that table because of the scale of the other players. This is why we need to come together as an entire association industry and talk about the role we as an industry can play in solving this serious global issue.

This can seem a little overwhelming, but the positive message is that we have the knowledge, skills, and capabilities necessary to do something to help. Associations are uniquely situated to make a difference, as soon as we step up and claim our place.

Elizabeth spoke in “The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.

CEO and chief strategist at

Elizabeth has been a member of the association community for more than 20 years. She is currently CEO & Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting LLC: Explosive Growth for Associations.

Elizabeth has been a member of the association community for more than 20 years. She is currently CEO & Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting LLC: Explosive Growth for Associations.

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