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Effective Education for Employment :: Vision - J David Hoffman

USA: J David Hoffman

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J David Hoffman - Challenges In Education: An Employer's Perspective

Brainstorm America is a highly specialized, pioneering company that supplies advanced 3D graphic and software services to the film and broadcast industry internationally. Brainstorm 3D graphics were used in real-time during the 2008 US Elections, and their clients include PGA Tours, CNBC, NBC Universal, and the BBC, Canal 9 and TVE in Europe.

In this interview J David Hoffman, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Brainstorm America, discusses the challenges educators face in developing individuals for the creative and high tech industries.

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Art And Technology: A Segregated Education System

David begins the interview by discussing the apparent tension between delivering educational experiences that develop rounded individuals who also have the highly specialized skills required in many industry sectors:

"There are failures now because people coming out of school have either a general knowledge and high levels of adaptability, or good technical skills but no tools to apply them."

He puts forward a compelling theory that another major problem with existing educational models is that

"There is strict segregation between technical schools and liberal art education"

which inhibits the development of individuals with the necessary mix of skills, behaviours and attributes required to thrive in the modern workplace.

David illustrates this point with his own experience, describing how he went through university studying film making, and came out with a skills set so related to:

"... the use of film and general tools like lighting, camera, sound... but not an understanding of how to behave on set".

He believes that "most of your real learning is in extracurricular activities"and that

"The self motivated will engage in extracurricular study, internships and push themselves in areas they have no experiences in".

David is convinced that there is an important distinction to make between those who take responsibility for their own learning and those who are solely motivated by the requirements of the course of study they are undertaking:

"The differentiation between the self motivated and the institutionally motivated",

an observation backed up by other data captured during the Effective Education For Employment study.

Based on David's own experience of working with interns, recruiting and building his own career, he believes graduates enter the work place with "little or no skills" and describes an interesting conundrum as follows:

"College teaches you a lot about life and very little about technical skills, while the flipside is that technical schools teach you everything about being technical and very little about being self-motivating or being innovative".

David is unconvinced that education programs can explicitly develop such skills or mindsets, but believes that

"Although these attributes cannot be (directly) taught to individuals, you can spark them by finding what motivates students".

From his own personal experience, David is convinced that if the circumstances are right, a student can discover their talents, motivations, and a passion for learning; something that schools should be aiming for as soon as possible in an individual's schooling:

"If that awakening happened in middle school you would be far better prepared going into your advanced or extended education".


Employer Needs - Skills And Motivation

David is quite clear on the needs of 21st century employers, and describes their requirements as revolving around a combination of skills rather than strict specialized knowledge. He explains that even in a company as specialized as Brainstorm America, with its highly technical offerings and niche services, it is still essential that an individual can offer a broad spectrum of complimentary skills when entering the company:

"Schools have historically been single threaded... you have the engineer, the graphic artist, the writer, all going in four, five different directions but you need to find the ones closest to the center. What employers truly want is the 'jack of all trades' and this is the person you want now".

David fully recognizes that there is a contradiction in asking for specialists whilst simultaneously calling for multi-skilled individuals, and admits that it is unsurprising that this has not been resolved in the education system:

"You need a volume of people that know a little bit of everything... schools haven't figured out a way to do that".

He again identifies those with a desire to learn and discover as being high value employees, describing his 'ideal employee' as follows:

"They have to be self starters. They have to be interested in and able to work in a team... And they have to ask questions".

He backs this up with his own experience of recruiting for Brainstorm America:

"The people that we find that are most successful are the most curious - skills are largely something that can be learned, but motivation and enthusiasm are inherent properties".


Find It Early And Incentivize Motivation

David Hoffman strongly believes that "everybody can be motivated to find something they love" but that "it has to be found early". He believes that educators should strive to provide opportunities for kids to discover their passions, asserting that as a result they will find meaning in what they are learning and from there, the motivation to learn.

He is convinced that middle school is where serious attempts to do this need to be focused, and suggests that students who demonstrate commitment to their chosen field or subject should be rewarded with placements in companies or mentors who can nurture their emerging interest:

"Put kids into incentive programs, saying 'If you are able perform in the top 10 of your class in a specific area, we will cut you out of that mind numbing experience of doing things by rote and inject you into some interesting places".

He believes this more vocational approach would be a great benefit to the community at large, as well as support kids "in their prime growth cycle, mentally and psychologically".


The Problem With 'One Size Fits All' Education

David talks at length about what he sees as a damaging requirement for schools to 'teach to the test'. He explains

"In middle schools many good things are lost because kids learn how to test but it's not all about grades. How well you can do algebra is no indication of how successful you will be".

He emphasizes the value of intellectual curiosity, arguing that

"Curiosity takes you places, gets you meeting people"

and believes that educators struggle to inculcate curiosity as they

"... are tied as they are asked to work to the lowest common denominator".

David clarifies, arguing that "not everybody is suited to do everything", suggesting that our existing systems are inherently flawed because they attempt to put everyone through the same educational process. David puts forward an egalitarian viewpoint:

"The egghead that knows everything on a computer but cannot socialize is no more useful the guy who cannot put two and two together but can lift a thousand pounds"

and argues that we should look for educational outcome that deliver societal as well as economic benefit:

"You have to get an institutionalized understanding of being a good citizen and a productive member of society in whatever skill you bring - then you can start to teach to this and we can start to get somewhere"


Recruiting For Success

David discusses his work with Brainstorm America and the methods they use to identify suitable candidates for their specialized teams. He explains that Brainstorm America's success is due to measured growth, a focused client base and very strong attention to detail when delivering services to their demanding, high profile clients.

Brainstorm America is a growing company, and they are always looking for people to expand their operations in both the US and internationally, but David describes a real challenge in finding the right people to facilitate this growth:

"The difficulty we find is that younger talent pools are coming out with a great deal of creative skills or a great deal of technical expertise, but very rarely both - and that is what we need. Also, we've found a real lack of commitment in some applicants, which immediately counts them out".

Whilst David recognizes that it is "really difficult" to find individuals with such a diverse set of skills and attributes,

"Whenever someone has all these things together, they tend to be in the top 10% of anything they are doing"

he has discovered an effective way of finding the people Brainstorm America needs - going direct to colleges.

By working directly with colleges and creating a two-way partnership in the quest to "discover visionaries and diamonds in the rough" David believes everyone involved - the students, the teachers, the college, its students and Brainstorm America - wins. He explains:

"I go on campus and ask instructors what they need from me to get students further in their studies, and in turn they show me their top students, get sight of a cutting edge company and how we work. If I can help one kid, two or ten kids to have a lower barrier to their dreams, then I have just created a win win."

Brainstorm America practice this approach systematically, investing the time and money to visit five top colleges to present their business and opportunities for students. The best students may be offered placements or even jobs on graduation, and David is in no doubt that this is a vastly superior recruitment technique to more traditional approaches:

"If we are good enough and present ourselves well they (the colleges) will actually pay for us to come. As a result the top 10% of students can get training that would have cost thousands for free and I give them my card and create business connections".


Strengthening Employer Voice - Essential For Our Future

Supporting Brainstorm America's recruitment and training philosophy, David believes that employers should have a stronger voice in the design and delivery of education, and suggests that the approach Brainstorm America has evolved should be formalized to benefit the maximum number of students and businesses.

He references the successful example of General Electric who operate a two year program as follows:

"Students are hired not for a specific job, but because they are identified as future leaders in technology areas. They are top in their class and they may have skills that are specific to a field but they are taking these skills (into the workplace) to help them understand General Electric as a whole. Over the two years they work in four different divisions, locations and experiences all with the same philosophy but different applications".

He is impressed with this innovative approach to corporate life and states that this approach not only develops effective managers and leaders who understand the varied functions of the organization, but creates

"... a family and community feel... they get to know everybody and everybody gets to know them. I can guarantee you some of these people will be running the company in the future".

David concludes that to it is exactly this type of exposure to varied roles and experiences in the workplace that education systems should be moving towards in order to develop high caliber people able to deal with the ever-changing demands of the 21st century workplace.

He is convinced of the value of well-executed internship programs and sees the forging of stronger links between colleges, universities and employers of all types as key to providing compelling, meaningful and useful education to students:

"If the universities had a better way of broadcasting out and businesses more chances to come and share with them, both parties could understand a bit more about what they are doing and what they need. That's where we need to look - we've go to to make those connections."