By 2026, 1.4 million people will have lost their jobs as a result of technical change, according to a report from the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group. For around 70% of them, the change will happen because their job type ceases to exist.
While this prediction paints a bleak future, others offer a more optimistic outlook. A report from Gartner suggests that artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it eliminates. And Cognizant Technology Solutions predicts that technological innovations will create up to 21 million jobs across the next 10 years.
A new report from McKinsey & Company offers a prediction somewhere in the middle: nearly 40% of U.S. jobs will shrink—but not necessarily disappear—by 2040.
Not surprisingly, to land (or keep) these remaining jobs, students and workers will have to build new skills—particularly those involving technology. And many believe it’s up to higher ed to help them do that. But to accomplish this, colleges and universities will have to make some adjustments to their curricula, argues Kemi Jona, associate dean for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern University.
In fact, a recent Gallup poll suggests that just 22% of surveyed Americans believe that colleges are adequately preparing students for jobs involving technology. “It’s a wakeup call for the need to be more agile in our thinking and our approach to lifelong learning,” says Jona. “If higher education continues to think the traditional one-size-fits-all approach is going to work, we’re going to miss the boat.”
So to better prepare students and workers for the future of work, here’s what economists and higher ed leaders recommend:
1: Ease the path for lifelong learning
Students and workers will need to become lifelong learners to remain competitive in the job market. “Most surprising to me is how limited efforts have been by universities to see a relationship between themselves and the students as extending over multiple decades,” says André Dua, a senior partner at McKinsey and co-author of the latest report.
So rather than treating graduation as the final goal, colleges and universities need to provide students and grads with opportunities to learn and reskill throughout the course of their lives, argues Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that works to improve community college student outcomes.
For instance, the University of Michigan‘s Ross School of Business recently launched a scholarship program that allows alumni to take certain classes at no cost—forever. The scholarship waives tuition fees for the Ross Executive Education, a collection of 42 courses in leadership, marketing, HR, and finances. Michigan Ross Dean Scott DeRue says the curriculum is meant to be nimble and change alongside the economy.
“The whole model that you go to college for two years or four years and you’re ready for the rest of your life—that’s predicated on a pace of change of a bygone era,” says Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
2: Provide short-term learning opportunities
At many institutions, lifelong learning opportunities come in the form of short-term credentials, such as micro credentials, badges, and bootcamps. This type of learning appeals to working people, whose schedules may not be conducive to a full-time course load or who are “looking for the ability to get recognition for their learning much more quickly than a four-year cycle,” explains Lois Brooks, chief information officer and vice provost for information technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To determine which type of credentials to offer, Stout recommends pinpointing in-demand industries, then looking at the skills and competencies those industries require from employees.
3: Partner with employers
Another option is to allow employers to help craft college programming, adds Stout. “Very often employers aren’t asked to put skin in the game, so it’s monetary support as well as thought leadership support that has to be captured somehow,” she says.
For example, Miami Dade College partnered with the energy industry to build a curriculum that would guarantee students’ workforce readiness upon graduation. And several other institutions are partnering with local employers to offer shared credentials that give students a boost during the hiring process.
“Universities and colleges have to get past the idea that working closely with the private sector is a bad thing or that it somehow tarnishes their brands,” says Jona.
4: Maintain humanities programming
Short-term learning opportunities will be critical to helping workers transition to new jobs and maintain job security. But too much of an emphasis on upskilling could lead institutions to “lose focus on the things that make education education,” argues Sarma.
Plus, grads will need more than technical skills; they’ll need to cultivate the skills robots haven’t mastered yet. “Employers will want to see social and emotional skills,” says Susan Lund, an economist at McKinsey. “Creativity, decision-making, real-time problem-solving skills.” In fact, professions that rely on empathy or creativity are the least likely to be automated, notes Jason Hong a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Therefore, a liberal arts education—when combined with technology and data skills—is ideal for students looking to become truly robot-proof, suggests Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern. To ensure students have the right mix of human and technological skills, Northeastern revamped its curriculum to offer students majors that integrate different fields, such as cybersecurity and economics. The university also requires all students in its college of computer sciences to take a course on public speaking to ensure that STEM students are equipped with soft skills.
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