Leila Toplic, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at LRNG

We live in a time of learning abundance, with more access to knowledge and technological innovation than ever before. Yet we are confronted by incredible inequality because learning in the 21st century is still fragmented and disconnected. As a result, we’re failing to make learning opportunities visible and accessible to all young people and connected to 21st century careers.

With more than 263 million children and adolescents out-of-school around the world, and a growing disconnect between what youth learn in the classroom and their everyday lives, we can no longer ignore this inequality in access to education. Projections show that if we don’t act to connect youth worldwide to learning and employment opportunities, only three of 10 young people will be on track by 2030 to receive a quality education and learn basic skills. The most dire circumstances are in areas of growing global crises, conflict and natural disasters.

Helping generations of young people find a path to employment is not only critical to their futures, but also to their communities and our collective well-being as a global community and economy. Consider that right now, 40 percent of U.S. employers have jobs they cannot fill because applicants lack the skills required.

And, while schools are necessary, they are no longer sufficient for preparing youth for our fast-changing world. Turning our static education system into a fully functional learning ecosystem that benefits all youth and prepares them for the future requires a cross-sector effort, and the private sector has an important role to play in closing the skills gap for global youth.

Providing skills development aligned with employment opportunities is something that employers do well. I saw that commitment at Microsoft, where I led talent development for the company’s marketing group, reaching thousands of employees across 30-plus countries. U.S. employers already invest more than universities and government combined, spending $177 billion on formal training each year and an additional $413 billion on informal on-the-job training. But what has been missing to date is a way to help employers connect their expertise and resources to the young people who need access to skills and guidance.

LRNG is doing just that — connecting the employers with youth to prepare them for future success.

We are a nonprofit that provides a youth-first, technology-enabled network of learning opportunities to young people of all means and backgrounds. We do this online and by working in 12 LRNG Cities, including Chicago, San Jose and D.C. We are bringing together employers, mayors, community institutions such as libraries and museums, nonprofits and schools to build an ecosystem of learning that combines all experiences – out-of-school, in-school, online, and employer-based – and provides evidence of learning through digital badges. In essence, LRNG is an infrastructure that enables the nonprofit community to tap into the expertise of employers, scale their impact and close the opportunity gap by transforming how young people access and experience learning and the paths they can take to future success.

The work is grounded in “Connected Learning” pedagogy, which aims to bring together the various spheres of a young person’s life, from interests to academic experiences, career opportunities and peer culture. This is an approach with global appeal and relevance.

We engage youth in part through playlists, a linked set of online or in-person learning experiences and activities that connect young people with peers and mentors and to real-world opportunities. LRNG is working with private and public sector partners, including Gap, Fossil, Best Buy, University of Chicago, and many others, to co-design playlists that connect passion to employable skills and opportunities. For example, The Business playlist, co-designed in partnership with Gap, Inc., focuses on the basics of career readiness, including showing young people how their interests can guide their career and job path. The Big Deal playlist, co-designed in partnership with the University of Chicago, teaches data science in the context of community engagement. Young people learn how to unlock information to better understand their communities, as well as uncover patterns and consequences, thus giving them a chance to make a real difference.

In addition, LRNG Cities and Orgs are using LRNG tools to create and network learning experiences that activate their local resources and provide opportunities for youth to learn coding, fashion design, music production, problem-solving, collaboration, and more.

When young people successfully complete playlists, they earn digital badges. Badges are publicly shareable credentials that contain data and proof-of-work which, I believe, are much more meaningful evidence of a young person’s readiness than traditional resumes. Badges not only make everywhere, all-the-time learning possible for youth, but they are also a critical tool for breaking through institutional barriers that lock too many young people out of traditional paths to success.

In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution encouraging cities nationwide to embrace digital badges for workforce development, employment, financial aid, and higher education. The resolution also encourages city leaders to leverage the LRNG learning platform as a shared digital badging framework. And, in September, The International Commission on Financing Global Education launched #LearningGeneration Report, which highlights a number of innovative solutions for achieving the Learning Generation vision. These innovations include digital badges and the recommendations call upon global leaders, including employers, to innovate in the recognition and accreditation of skills and to use common learning platforms in order to expand educational opportunities to all youth.

In the words of Legend Brandenburg, 17, of West Sacramento, CA.: “What the badges mean to me is … concrete evidence that I can bring with me to my next job, and they can actually see – and not just me saying that I did this – but they can actually see that I did something.”

Business leaders and others will continue to come together to help young people like Legend, and not just domestically. With about one-third of the world’s youth not in school, training or employed, and the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II leaving millions of displaced children with no access to education, mobilization is more critical than ever.

I had the opportunity to attend the Global Business Coalition for Education roundtables in New York recently and hear firsthand the alarming statistics that speak to the challenges in education and youth employment globally. I believe that we cannot solve these problems without the business community coming together with the nonprofit community.

With the new Education Commission report, the establishment of the Education Cannot Wait Fund, and the Global Partnership for Education, there are an increasing number of ways for business to engage and connect their expertise and business goals to youth globally. LRNG offers one of the possible channels to support the efforts to create a Learning Generation. Here are a few ways you can work with us: accept LRNG’s digital badges on job applications; provide internships and job opportunities for LRNG youth; and work with us to co-design playlists that are meaningful to young people and aligned with labor market needs.

As William Gibson said, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” We look forward to continuing to work with our business and community partners to help close the learning and employment gap for all youth.

Leila Toplic is the Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at LRNG. You can read more about their work at about.lrng.org.