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The case for short-term talent in education

Like all great conversations, this one left me with plenty to think about. A good friend and I had just spent an hour brainstorming ideas for building authorizer capacity. As we looked at our list, however, we realized that we had a problem. Much of the work needed expert short-term talent, and identifying, recruiting, vetting and matching talent to the work was a daunting task. Wasn’t it ironic, we mused, that education had a large, growing pool of experienced and expert professionals – yet schools and nonprofits that need expertise for short-term, mission-critical work find it difficult to access the right talent quickly, reliably and affordably? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a network of “catalysts” that organizations could call upon when the right opportunities for leveraging their expertise emerged?

Short-term talent as a solution to the “talent gap”: Education leaders identify a scarcity of expert talent as one of the biggest challenges facing their organizations. To meet this challenge, the sector has invested millions of dollars into developing its human capital resources and attracting high caliber new talent into the sector. Yet, although these efforts have been individually successful, they have barely made a dent at a systemic level as the demand for talent has outstripped its supply. Factors such as an increased focus on outcomes, more decentralized decision-making, emerging opportunities (e.g., technology in classrooms) and new challenges (e.g., more English language learners) have resulted in more schools and nonprofits looking for more expert help.

But what if we could extend the reach of the talent already present in the sector to deliver greater impact to more organizations? One way to do this would be for organizations to hire talent for high-leverage, short-term work structured to deliver results. An expert in early primary literacy would thus be able to work with more schools around the country, training more teachers and helping more children.

Short-term work doesn’t just enable us to amplify the impact of the best talent in the sector – it also enables innovation. A nonprofit recently asked us to help them find an expert on partnership development for a pilot initiative. Working with short-term talent rather than hiring a full time person allowed them to make a small investment on a new and unproven approach without compromising on quality. Short-term work also allows smaller organizations to afford expertise that would otherwise be out of their reach – some of our earliest clients were charter school applicants seeking coaches who could guide them through the process of applying for a charter and starting a new school.

“Like trying to find a needle in a haystack”: Recognizing the power of short-term talent, savvy school and nonprofit leaders have started to incorporate short-term hiring within their overall talent management strategy. Finding the right person for a mission-critical need is, however, easier said than done, and my conversations with education leaders prior to launching Catalyst:ED illustrated just how challenging the process could be. A school leader shared that it took her four months – almost half the school year – to find someone who could train her teachers on working with English language learner students. A nonprofit leader admitted that they hadn’t found an expert to develop their earned revenue plan – even though they had identified it as a strategic priority three years ago.

The expertise is out there. Here is a quick thought exercise: in a minute, how many folks can you name who are consulting, either full-time or on the side?. The challenge, though, is that the pool of short-term talent is highly fragmented and dispersed, making it difficult for organizations to find the right talent as and when they need it. There’s also very little reliable information to help organizations decide which of the available options might be the best fit.

A fragmented and dispersed market plus very little information is not a new problem. Consider the travel industry. Back in the day, if you were planning a vacation, you would ask friends and relatives and hope for recommendations, call 20 different hotels before finding one with available room, and then keep your fingers crossed till you got to the hotel and verified that it was indeed what you were hoping for. Today, we rely on platforms like Tripadvisor and AirBnB to show us our options and provide us with data and reviews, leading to better decisions in less time and with less worry.

Leveraging short-term expertise for long-term impact: Might we apply lessons from these models to address the challenges of accessing short-term talent in education without losing the personal touch? I think so. At Catalyst:ED (www.catalyst-ed.org), we are helping schools, school districts, and nonprofits connect with vetted, experienced and expert short-term talent for mission-critical needs. Mixed in with newer concepts like networks, algorithms and technology, is good old-fashioned matchmaking between organizations and talented individuals that we have invested time in getting to know. Here’s how it works: Organizations schedule a needs assessment call or use one of our starter scope templates to tell us what they’re looking for. We build out a custom project scope tailored to their needs and budget and then source talent that is the best “fit” from our network and through our referral partners. Organizations review profiles and bids from interested experts and decide whom they want to interview and work with. We check in during the project to ensure things are on track and, crucially, conduct a post-project evaluation on both sides to capture valuable lessons.

The results of our work so far indicate that we may be on to something: Compared to baseline data captured from our pre-launch surveys/interviews, the projects listed on our site were matched in less time (in two weeks on average, compared to 8-12 weeks), with more options (4 talent options on average per project, compared to 2) and with quality (every completed project has received a five-star rating from clients and consultants). Our clients say our services are “much needed”, “tremendously beneficial” and “a lifesaver”.

We have also laid the foundations for future growth. Our network of vetted experts is 200+ strong and consists of exceptional talent, ranging from independent consultants to boutique consulting firms to “diversifiers” – folks who have full-time jobs, but are open to side gigs that allow them to expand their impact. Schools, school districts, nonprofits, foundations and government agencies around the country are seeing us as a talent partner. And we are building out technology that will enable us to our work efficiently and effectively at scale.

To have an impact on the sector, we need to do much more. Next year, we will make 250 matches around the country and grow our network of experts to 1000+, so more organizations can access the expertise they need, when they need it. At that conversation over a coffee many months ago, we had wondered what education might look like if access to expertise was no longer a constraint. Would there be more innovation? Better results? More efficiencies? We can’t wait to find out.

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This is the first post in our blog “Talent Library”. We will be exploring some of themes of this blog post with greater depth in subsequent posts. Thoughts, ideas or feedback? Please use the “comments” section or email us at info@catalyst-ed.org. We would love to hear from you!