The overwhelming factor driving the economy in the long-term is technology, a seemingly unstoppable force the pandemic has intensified. Artificial intelligence is showing an ability to perform an ever-increasing array of tasks. And that is why the work of the future is human work, the work that only people can do.
To meet the demands of this rapidly changing environment, education and training must change in fundamental ways.
- Address racial disparities One unmistakable effect of the pandemic has been that workers at the lower end of the economy are among those most gravely affected. Many of us who have lost jobs and income are women. We are Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American. We may live in rural areas or be new to the country. If we are people of color, we have less family wealth. In addition, we are struggling to experience economic security as lower-skill jobs are automated. Start here.
- Invest in community colleges Community colleges are the 'first responders' in the country’s higher learning system. Instead of allowing budget constraints to erode their capacity to respond, political, civic, and business leaders at every level should be expanding their capacity and helping them market their education and training to students. This first-responder role is especially important during a recession, when community colleges could be helping those who are without work reposition themselves in the labor market.
- Advocate for apprenticeships Other countries have long seen greater value in apprenticeship programs. There is no reason, for example, companies cannot offer more apprenticeship-type opportunities in professional settings. Engineering fields do this with “co-op” programs. As the composition of today’s students comes to resemble the country at large, policymakers and employers must give greater thought to how we can take what we have learned at work and get credit for it without having to sacrifice income or the benefits of regular work. Degree apprenticeships, which combine technical and academic learning, should play a bigger role in preparing people for work in this country. The UK, Germany, and other countries can point the way.
- Recognize today’s student As learning and working become more integrated, 'student' and 'employee' are no longer two different kinds of people. With human work, most of us have full- or part-time jobs, care for children or parents, and deal with transportation, housing, and related issues. Those of us who are not fresh out of high school and need to develop relevant knowledge and skills have been left behind by the country’s outdated education and training systems.
- Lift up all learning With human work, the differences between education and training no longer matter so much. It is an unfair distinction. Every education and training program should lead to further learning (and credentialing) and strong results in the labor market. We and the people who hire us must see the clear benefits of transparent learning outcomes. Policymakers, educators, and labor experts who talk about education and training separately have helped stigmatize the types of learning that involve hands-on labor. This has held back individuals—and the country. What we know and can do is starting to matter a lot more than the brand behind the education or training we participate in.
- Define what we know and can do In a skills-based economy, we need to discern what skills are called for to do a specific work, where and how to learn these skills, and how to talk about our transferable knowledge and skills. This requires far greater transparency about skills and learning across the board. It also means credentials must accurately convey what people know and can do. Everything we learn— even in college — should involve demonstrating mastery and application of important “bundles” of knowledge and skills to measure progress, with a range of credentials that affirm the competencies we have developed.
- Define skills broadly To thrive in the new talent economy, we have to be prepared to think critically, reason ethically, interact personally, and serve others with empathy. Technical skills matter, but what matters more is our capacity to apply these skills to solving problems. Building this capacity will require wide and deep learning, including the ability to keep learning — the most important skill of all.
- Destroy dead-ends Millions of us are falling behind in today’s labor market, and too many are leaving the workforce in frustration. We know the devastating consequences. Simply paying people a guaranteed basic income is not the answer. Each of us, whether an immigrant, a displaced worker, of someone concerned about finding work, needs the opportunity to develop a skillset that enables meaningful work.
- Embrace learning for life We also saddled ourselves with the wrongheaded and dangerous belief that the college we choose when we are 18 determines our lot in life. The linear school-college-work pathway is dead, and along with it the idea of 'once and done' when it comes to education. Jobs are constantly changing, which is why people need to keep gaining new knowledge and learning new skills throughout their lives. Giving all of us the opportunity to keep learning throughout life will enrich our lives in addition to keeping our learning relevant to future work.
- Up the education ante It has been a long time since a high school education was enough to allow most people to have good jobs and provide security for their families. In a job market that places an increasing premium on technical skills, we need more than a diploma if we want realistic shots at good jobs and careers. We need a college degree or short-term credential that delivers better pay, a promotion, or a career in a new field.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines