This post is an excerpt from the first part of a three-part series on the Future of Work and What It Means for Higher Education. A free download of the first part if available here.
The world of work is undergoing a massive shift. Not since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Information Age that followed in the last century have we seen the scale of disruption already taking place in the workforce
Entire occupations and industries are expanding and contracting at an alarming pace, and the skills needed to keep up in almost any job are increasingly churning at a faster rate. Average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months, and IBM predicts that in the next couple of years with the expansion of the Internet of Things, information will double every 11 hours.
It remains unclear whether simply adding more time to a person’s education early in life will be enough to compete in the 21st century economy.
While previous shifts in how we work have typically been accompanied by an expansion in the amount of education required to get a good job—the introduction of mandatory high school in the early 1900s, the expansion of higher education in the 1960s—it remains unclear whether simply adding more time to a person’s education early in life will be enough to compete in the 21st century economy.
Rather, the purpose and structure of higher education will need to shift to keep pace with changes in the workforce. Instead of the industrial model of education, where students follow a prescribed curricula delivered largely in formal classroom settings, higher education in the future will need to equip students with collaborative, problem-solving skills to self-direct their own learning for life in way that allows them to complement rather than try to compete with technology.
The Skills of the Future
Competencies such as computational ability, technical literacy, and writing will remain important in the future, of course. But what will separate the top talent from everyone else in the workplace of tomorrow will be a flexible and growth mindset that recognizes learning never ends. The ability to communicate, work in teams, solve problems on the fly, and adapt to change are more important than ever before now that hard skills are ever changing, and, in some cases, being replaced by automated machines and artificial intelligence.
The problem for higher education to solve, however, is that students often come to campuses focused on finding a major that will lead to a job. Indeed, freshmen now tell researchers in an annual nationwide survey of first-year students that the number one reason to attend college is to “get a better job” (“learn about things that interest me” had been the top reason for decades).
The future workforce demands that higher education begin to rethink the historical purpose of the college degree—especially the appropriate mix between theory and practice and how credentials communicate what students know to the wider world.
The Duel Threat of Automation and the Gig Economy
At play in the economy are two simultaneous forces unsettling workers wondering if there will be enough jobs in the future to gainfully employ them.
First, automation and artificial intelligence threaten to displace not only blue-collar workers performing routine jobs, but white-collar employees in knowledge industries. Second, the emergence of the gig economy is reshaping the traditional employer-employee relationship as more contractors and freelancers fill roles once reserved for full-time workers making good salaries.
While robots taking jobs make for attention-grabbing headlines, the move toward a freelance economy might end up having more of a long-term impact on how higher education prepares students for the next economy. A workplace without employees requires students to think more like entrepreneurs as they piece together work into a portfolio of projects.
One of those key roles that employers have always played is in the professional development of their workers. On a yearly basis, usually through annual performance reviews, employers would advise employees about the skills needed to keep their job or what was required to be promoted. In many cases, employers would suggest training programs and pay for them.
But freelancers get no such guidance nor help on finding or paying for continuing education.
A Growth Mindset Needed
The trends of the 21st century have shaped our world into an endlessly connected and informed place. Globalization, information technology, scientific breakthroughs, cooperative action across cultures propel people at ever increasing rates into new realms of knowledge and continuous communications. This accelerated and open process of information exchange is constantly evolving, meaning that no one sphere of knowledge, no one discipline will sustain students and researchers for their entire careers.
To learn and cultivate the skills of the future workforce, students need to possess mindsets that will help them achieve success. How colleges and universities adapt legacy teaching models to encourage these mindsets in students and help them meet the demands of the 21st century economy is perhaps the greatest challenge facing higher education today.
Jeffrey Selingo is author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.
He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.