Education in the United States is at a crossroads. Our economy and technology have greatly out-paced the rigidly hierarchical educational system that has been in place for more than 100 years. Disruptive technologies and disruptive individuals are changing the way we live, interact and do business at a rate that is far beyond that system’s ability to react.
Disruption and Introspection
Disruptive individuals are transforming our economy by disregarding our educational system’s strict adherence to completing all the required steps. Disruptive technologies and innovations have created a skills gap to which our education system is painfully slow to react. We must take a hard look at what we need from our education system to keep pace with this transformation and prepare individuals to thrive in the economy it creates. Our society is as talented as it has ever been – the pathway to develop that talent to its fullest potential must be redefined.
Learning, Unlearning, and Learning Again
If we envision today’s trends becoming an entrenched reality of the next century, we need to develop an educational system that equips graduates with the ability to learn, unlearn and learn again. We have already moved past the era of an employee working for one company throughout their adult life. It is an expectation that an individual will not just go through multiple job changes in their working life but will experience multiple career changes. Some of this is driven by personal preference and changing interests, but it is also the result of rapidly advancing technology. Jobs that are common today are likely to not exist in the future. Career change will be driven by the need to find a job not made obsolete by technology or consumer demand.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Focus
So how do we educate and train a workforce for jobs and career paths that do not currently exist? Our current higher education/workforce development emphasis may not prove helpful to answer this question. Today’s focus is on filling our current employment needs. Employers and politicians want to steer students to career paths that are relevant today and get them into the workforce as quickly as possible to fill immediate needs. Students need to learn hard skills that apply directly to the workforce. This mantra is common both in vocational training and in traditional higher education. This mindset pushes students at colleges and universities into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics majors that lead directly to “good jobs.” It has caused some to question the need for liberal arts in higher education. Return on investment in the form of a high entry-level wage justifies the investment in education. Our current system seems more geared to getting a graduate their first job than to preparing them for the turbulence of career change throughout their working years. This is a narrowly focused, short-term view.
Economics and Resiliency is the Answer
Changing the current model will require finding a balance between our current economic needs and developing resiliency in our workforce. Individuals will always need to possess the skillset required for employment. Our challenge is to determine what they need to know in addition to those skills that will help them adapt to both gradual and sudden change in the working environment. Sixty-five percent of current jobs could be automated or out-sourced in the future. Our need for human contact and interaction may slow the pace of automation in the future, but nonetheless, for at least two-thirds of workers, job re-training or career change is a fact.
To create a resilient workforce capable of adapting to change we must take long view of education. Truly impactful education is a life-long process. Currently we consider the earning of a degree and life-long learning to be two separate efforts. Individuals earn a degree after high school to enter the workforce. Life-long learning coincides with an active retirement. Earning the first college degree needs to be viewed as just the first step in a life-long process, not the end of required higher education. The future may not require the hierarchical system of Associates-Bachelors-Masters-Doctorate, it may be a winding pathway of credentials and certifications that allow workers to navigate the changes in the workplace or adopt a new career path.
Liberal Arts Increases Resiliency
A focus on the liberal arts may be the aspect of our current education system that provides a key to creating resilient, adaptable workers in the future. Education must expose us to new things and different viewpoints if we are to develop as people. Graduates must be prepared for the human dynamic in the workforce, not just the skill requirements. Today’s employers value graduates with critical thinking skills, strong verbal and written communication skills and analytical ability. A liberal arts education exposes students to opportunities to develop these skills in addition to the technical skills required to join the workforce. We learn and develop more outside of our comfort zone than tucked safely within.
We cannot project or predict all the disruptions that lie ahead in our economy and lifestyle. But we can be certain that we will have to adapt to many changes to maintain a vibrant economy and keep our workforce impactfully engaged. We must thoughtfully and deliberately begin the discussion now about how our education system can keep pace with the new economy and changes beyond.