Why is it hard to hire for learning roles? 3 early hypotheses

Folks: Learning is hot right now. At least, in the aid and development sectors. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) teams are now monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). Strategy departments have become “Strategy and Learning”; research departments, “Research and Learning”.

Learning feeds into real-time adaptation, longer-term strategic shifts, and broader sectoral changes. It makes M&E meaningful as something more than donor reporting and gives practical purpose to research.

It’s a promising employment area as well: Devex has 684 job postings with the word “learning” in the title. That’s fewer than have “monitoring” (1,309) or “evaluation” (1,237)—but I’m fairly sure learning has been on an upward trend from a few years ago.

All that said, I’m having trouble squaring the learning boom with the fact that several organizations I know are really struggling to hire learning staff. I’ve had several conversations in recent weeks about the challenges of finding the right fit.

My sample is too small and most of my data too anecdotal to explain why, but my early hypotheses are:

  • Not enough people interested: Learning roles aren’t as attractive to job candidates, perhaps because the function is not yet defined enough to have a clear career path.
  • Not enough people qualified, likely because the job is defined too broadly: Most learning roles sit at the intersection of M&E, research, communications, management, and strategy. Few candidates have experience in more than one or two of those, so there are not enough qualified candidates in the pools.
  • Not sure what they’re looking for: Organizations aren’t sure how the learning role connects to the rest of their work (it’s often a newly created position) and so it’s hard for hiring mangers to picture how any given candidate will fit in.

Is anyone else experiencing trouble hiring for learning roles? If so, I’d be curious to hear more about it—in the comments below or by email.

Pictured: TA LEARN workshop in Rio.

9 thoughts on “Why is it hard to hire for learning roles? 3 early hypotheses

  1. Dave,

    I think you have hit on a key issue. But I think it’s mostly a manifestation of the ambiguities around learning more broadly. Some organizations have it in their DNA, so a learning position is not necessarily necessary, as its a shared practice and responsibility. On the other hand, other organizations may feel they need to get better at learning, but just hiring a ‘learning’ staff member obviously doesn’t ensure that organizational learning happens, particularly when it is in tension with other internal and external obstacles.

    But, and I say this self-servingly as someone occupying one of those learning roles, I also think it is a challenge to find people who fit the niche. Development work can be like academia, lots of disciplinary silos. Working across the domains that you mentioned above is tricky. At the end of the day, someone with a ‘learning’ job title is much more facilitator than anything else, helping to nudge and support learning across a program or organization. ‘It takes a village’….to learn!

  2. One possible amplification of your third point – it’s not clear what the “usual package” of learning artefacts are the way it is with monitoring (indicators, PMP, DQA) or evaluation (various types of evaluations). Since it’s not clear what products someone should have created in the past, or will create in a given position, it’s hard to build a mental model of the right experience in a candidate or for someone to see whether and how they fit. It becomes more oriented toward knowing the organizational culture – admittedly a big plus – than clearly defined skills, because there are not tasks defined to anchor those skills. And I agree with Brendan, the cross-disciplinary nature and the facilitation focus are difficult fits compared with someone who can “get the job done” in a typical M&E sense.

    I would say this is a derivative and not its own point, having to do with organizations not knowing exactly what they want or how to use their learning adviser, but probably contributes – how not knowing where they want to go makes challenges in practice.

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