The workplace of the future will be marked by unprecedentedly advanced technologies, as well as a focus on incorporating artificial intelligence to drive higher levels of production with fewer resources. Employers and education stakeholders, noting the reality of this trend, are turning a reflective eye toward current students and questioning whether they will be workforce ready in the years to come.
This has become a significant concern for higher education executives, who find their business models could be disrupted as they fail to meet workforce demands. A 2018 Gallup-Northeastern University survey shows that of 3,297 U.S. citizens interviewed, only 22% with a bachelor’s degree said their education left them “well” or “very well prepared” to use AI in their jobs.
Still, there are those who say automation is not as drastic as many predict. Researchers Melanie Arntzi, Terry Gregoryi and Ulrich Zierahn reported in their study of 21 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries that only about 9% of jobs are automatable.
The evolving job market
When it comes to the future of the workforce there are largely two stances on what will happen: On one side, many predict that vast swaths of jobs will be obsolete as automation replaces the need for manned labor Others, however, claim this stance is a bit over-hyped, as the effects of automation will manifest slowly and realistically the number of jobs that will be affected will be much smaller than predicted.
At a 2018 Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board panel briefing on the Higher Education Act, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said the model of how universities operates needs to be turned on its head.
“We’re now in an information age powered by the Internet, and we are going to need to make that change a lot quicker than we did before. said Pulsipher. “The credit hour that emerged in that past is not the only measure of learning anymore that’s going to be needed for the workforce.”
However, another panel participant, Chris Gabrielli, the board chair of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and a former employee of an AI tech company, explained the effects of automation are overhyped.
“I don’t believe the numbers on the pace at which jobs are going to change. In fact, I think McKinsey [research firm] had to recently revise its numbers downward, Gabrielli said.
"But, he said, while things will change more slowly, that is “not to say we don’t need to make skills and credentials and opportunities available throughout life.”
What Gabrielli finds is that ultimately the skills debate — whether there's a focus on only hard technical ones or soft communication skills — is a bit of a wash. For instance, a 2016 survey by ACT, which interviewed 371 workforce supervisors and 2,252 college teachers and administrators found that respondents did not think career readiness is linked to academic achievement. The characteristics most valued in employees, according to their responses, are qualities like “sustaining effort,” “acting honestly” and “keeping an open mind,” along with skills like oral communication and critical thinking.
Meanwhile, college instructors are focusing on being able to use complicated technological tools; this is evident with resurgence in emphasis over STEM. In an article, research firm McKinsey & Co. focuses on the argument that students need technical skills and must go to bootcamps that focus on technology-based solutions, such as online applications, or they will find themselves “at risk of being disconnected from the workforce because of background or education.”
The middle ground — stackable degrees and partnerships
A deeper dive into the automation debate shows what some experts advocate for is a middle approach that focuses on preparing students for life-long employability, rather than predicting what types of jobs are going to be available — or whether certain majors need to be eradicated. Taking a steady approach is smarter, Justin Reich, executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, told Education Dive.
In his book "Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence," Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun argued that for higher education to adapt advanced technologies, it has to focus on life-long learning, which he said says prepares students for the future by fostering purposeful integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data literacy, with human literacies, such as creativity, ethics, cultural agility and entrepreneurship.
“When students combine these literacies with experiential components, they integrate their knowledge with real life settings, leading to deep learning," Aoun told Forbes.
The best pathway to a the middle approach, said Pulsipher, is to implement strategies like stackable degrees, rather than disrupting the importance of a bachelor's degree. “The whole notion of the stackable credential is going to become real” because there will no longer be a “four-year grad rate,” he said. As students gain credentials and certificates over time, he added, “scaffolding” one’s credentials could take anywhere from 10 to 20 years. So, if an adult gets a certificate in a new type of technology that’s introduced in the workplace, that credential should be “stacked” upon his or her traditional degree.
Another obvious step to take, many experts contend, is to forge industry partnerships, so institutions know what types of jobs are in demand. This allows colleges to become more responsive and additive.
For instance, Mike Cartney, the president of Lake Area Technical Institute, said during the U.S. News & World STEM Solutions conference in Washington, D.C., this year that his institution has seen success in placing 99% of its graduates into a high-income jobs by focusing on “hire education,” to make sure that education actually resonates with students as a tangible goal and not just a piece of paper.
Part of this success, he said, comes from his active approach of making 400 industry partnerships to “make sure our product is what our graduates need in the workplace,” and position the institution to be the “community’s first responders,” providing students with the foundational and soft skills they need to do their jobs.
Richard Lester, dealership service technician development manager at Toyota USA who was on the same panel discussion with Cartney, agreed that “true collaboration between education and business is critical” because “standards drive program content, resources and occupational alignment,” and “drive continuous improvement.”