Q: We look forward to your upcoming session “First Jobs Matter: Innovating College to Career,” at SXSW EDU 2019. Tell us why this topic was important for you to explore.
Strada Institute for the Future of Work is interested in clarifying the phenomenon of underemployment. In part, we believe that the language of educators must connect to the language of the workforce and vice versa. Helping with this translation process is imperative as more people seek to harness the power of education throughout their work lives. With all of the technological advancements of our modern moment, we can expect to have to upgrade and adapt our skills over time. According to Pew data, 87% of workers already acknowledge the need to retool themselves. As the workforce moves into a new learn-earn-learn cycle, the handoff between education and work will occur on multiple occasions in every individual’s work life, not simply on the front end of it. So, in order for us to be able to lay the groundwork for that learning ecosystem of the future—one in which we move more seamlessly in and out of learning and work—we must better understand the barriers and the disconnect between learning providers and employers. Part of that involves a better understanding of the transition to the first job, so that we can ensure that other subsequent transitions happen with a whole lot less friction.
Q: How has technological advancement changed the way students enter the workforce?
Most jobs are now hybrid jobs in the sense that they’re all digital. Even if you want to become a journalist, you’d better be prepared for a field that is starting to look a whole lot more like an IT field with its increased demand for tech skills like data visualization, analytics, html, and search engine optimization.
“This where it becomes critical for all learners and workers to understand the value of human skills like communication, synthesis, problem solving that help us transfer more nimbly from domain to domain.”
At the same time, because of advancements of technology, we’re seeing faster obsolescence and waning of skills over time. There may be certain tasks that are better relinquished to computers and robots. The question then becomes, how do we prepare learners for jobs that don’t exist yet? How do we prepare them to lose their jobs and adapt to new ones, so that they may thrive in the future of work? How can learners and workers transfer what they do know into learning new skills that help them thrive in a highly uncertain world of work? This where it becomes critical for all learners and workers to understand the value of human skills like communication, synthesis, problem solving that help us transfer more nimbly from domain to domain. It’s fascinating to see that alongside an increased demand for digital skills, employers are demanding more of these human skills in their job postings. These are skills that will enable us to adapt in more turbulent times while also ensuring that our capabilities are perhaps more resistant to automation.
Q: How has research shaped your understanding of the higher education space?
Having started out as a professor, where I made a living producing research, over time I have shifted my outlook dramatically on how I think about Research with a big “R” and research.
A lot of my most recent work is in the small “r” space. There’s something really valuable about doing better storytelling around the great research that already exists. There’s a need for more synthesis of the work of very smart people out there that often sits in academic siloes or industrial pockets and aren’t being leveraged to help us start building now what we need for the future.
“We need better insights to serve as the basis for developing the systems, the architecture, and infrastructure needed to design more on- and off-ramps in and out of learning and work.”
To give you an example, most people agree with the basic concept of lifelong learning. It’s probably the least controversial subject I talk about, as I often have leaders in industry, policy, and education nodding along in agreement when I discuss this concept. However, I rarely observe how that understanding actually translates into action and investment. That’s where research becomes so vital. We need better insights to serve as the basis for developing the systems, the architecture, and infrastructure needed to design more on- and off-ramps in and out of learning and work. If we can use research to get to the development and prototyping phase of R&D, we’ll be moving in the right direction.
It’s not enough for us to admire the problem. How do we take what we know and shine a light on the areas that need further investment—the gaps we need to fill? How do we translate knowledge into action?
I’d love to see more researchers out there helping with storytelling and synthesis, so that investors, funders, entrepreneurs, and learning providers can be more strategic with their investments. This is precisely what we are trying to accomplish with the Institute for the Future of Work—to use insights to inform all of the strategic investments at Strada Education Network.
Q: Learning and work have become increasingly linked, how has this impacted higher ed institutions?
For many institutions, tighter linkage between learning and work makes faculty members very uncomfortable. More forward-thinking colleges and universities understand that the economics of higher education are simply unsustainable, and their faculty members get it. They understand that learners are looking both for knowledge and a good or better job. They see that the promise of success is not enough for learners and their families who are feeling the immediacy of economic uncertainty. Our latest report, Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work, puts this into relief by using the liberal arts as a case study. The liberal arts are extremely valuable despite the fact that so many critics—especially policymakers—are down on them. At the same time, however, we have to provide learners much more guidance on how their skills translate into the workforce.
“This is an open opportunity for learning providers to use skills clusters data to add career-oriented minors, specializations, add-on services for technical skills acquisition to guide students more clearly to successful career opportunities.”
Many educators do not rely on real-time labor market data, so how would they know that the demands are shifting and new technical skills are emerging as requisite skills in the workforce? Programs are not great about advising learners to take on some technical skills to make themselves even more marketable as they enter the labor market. This is an open opportunity for learning providers to use skills clusters data to add career-oriented minors, specializations, add-on services for technical skills acquisition to guide students more clearly to successful career opportunities. Educators also need to make it more transparent during a student’s undergraduate experience that the labor market is shifting in ways that will require learners to build in opportunities to augment their liberal arts track with certain specializations.
Q: What drives you to do the work that you do?
I feel like I have the best job because I get to learn something new every single day in service of others. I’m particularly motivated to build solutions for adult learners—for the 32 million Americans who are not thriving in the labor market and are at serious risk of being left behind by the future of work.
What is needed for the future does not exist today. Our postsecondary or training systems are not set up to enable us to move seamlessly. Rather most off-ramps penalize us in some way, and we can’t see any obvious and promising on-ramps back into the workforce. So, for our own sake, how do we start investing now in the learning ecosystem of the future? We’re all going to need a better, well-functioning system, as we navigate more frequent transitions between learning and work.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do when you visit Austin?
Eat. I like your food trucks. I’m more driven by food than most people. Anyone who knows me is used to seeing me grazing at all hours.