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Edutech Paper Plane helps students upskill by working on business challenges with companies

As coding classes and wider STEM focus make their way into schools, governments around Australia are hoping to ensure future generations are equipped with the right skills for the digital economy and the shifting nature of jobs and workplaces.

To help those well out of school or tertiary education and settled in careers is Paper Plane. Founded by Chris Ventura and Mike O’Brien, the startup is looking to help people upskill by working with companies on real projects.

Ventura felt that most education providers weren’t doing enough to equip people for the skills you actually use in a workplace, from communication through to effective collaboration, design thinking, emotional intelligence, and so on.

“[Plus] the emergence of new digital roles in the market and the increasingly hybrid nature of these roles meant there was a market need to supporting people in broadening their skillsets,” Ventura said.

To address these issues, the Paper Plane platform connects companies with students through real world projects, having participants work together in teams to solve real business problems in a bid to bridge the gap between education and employment.

“Our product bridges the gap between education and employment. We focus on developing the soft skills necessary to be successful in the workplace as well as the technical skills to perform their roles, [while] companies get access to innovative ideas from outside their cultural bubble to help them stay ahead of the curve,” Ventura explained.

Aimed at those looking to upskill or change careers, at the moment focusing on UX design and digital marketing, the platform works by first conducting phone interviews with applicants. The final 12 selected to take part for a project then meet online once a week for an evening workshop, to fit around their jobs.

As Ventura explained, the first week of the projects sees the students meet the partner company to receive their brief, which will guide the next seven weeks. A current project being run for Westfield and Scentre Group is asking participants to create a UX strategy and prototype to enhance the customer experience for Westfield shoppers.

“We provide a weekly curated playlist of content that guides them through the focus skill areas, such as wireframing and prototyping in UX Design. All of our projects have a core set of design thinking skills as their foundation with the technical skills in each area of discipline surrounding that framework,” Ventura said.

“This provides the process for taking a problem through to its solution, with that solution being expressed in the technical skills that are in the project, such as expressing a solution via a UX prototype or a marketing strategy deck. The end goal of the project is to present the solution back to the group and the company in order to receive feedback and an assessment of the work produced.”

Each participant in also assigned a coach to support them in all the non-technical skill areas outside of the weekly workshops, with this support covering areas such as emotional development and skills like communication and leadership.

Students complete a Gallup strengths assessment to highlight their strengths, which the coaches look to help empower the students to use to improve the quality of their experience and their work, Ventura explained.

At the end of it all, students receive feedback from the Paper Plane team and coaches, as well as from the partner companies.

Having already brought on the likes of Westfield, Scentre Group, and BT as partner companies, Ventura said the startup is seeking out companies “who think in a progressive way” and are keen to innovate, while also aiming to focus on business challenges that provide a positive social impact. Paper Plane also offers companies the option to run a project internally.

The cost is currently free for partner companies, who simply invest time, however the startup is looking at introducing a participation fee moving forward.

For students participation in a project costs $1,500, a fee the startup believes is fair given students get the opportunity to not only develop their skills, but work on a real project with a company.

The startup spent more than 12 months in a trial phase, Ventura said, tweaking everything from the delivery model to the time commitment required of students and partners – who are both essentially customers and must thus have their expectations met and managed – the coaching and assessment models, and the structure of a partner company’s involvement.

A key challenge was determining how to assess those softer skills.

“We have a philosophy that we will never ask our students to sit an exam or quiz to determine competency. We don’t believe that has served students in the best way traditionally,” Ventura said.

“All assessment is based on the work and participation throughout the projects, and comes from ourselves and the companies involved. No other institution involves their partners in this process but this is what happens in the real world; all of us are always passing silent assessments on our colleagues and leaders.”

With projects underway, the startup is now looking to grow its partner company network and expand into new areas beyond UX design and digital marketing.

Image: the Paper Plane team. Source: Supplied.

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