In a previous post, I outlined three truths about today’s economy that should guide our efforts to restore economic opportunity for all. This series is a deeper dive into those challenges, and some of the promising solutions I’ve observed.
Last week, I discussed potential challenges that will face workers as the online platform economy continues to rise. Technology held in the palm of our hands is disrupting traditional industries–from transportation to grocery delivery to freelance work—driving them to become increasingly digital and on-demand. But what about when technology takes over the job altogether?
It’s no hypothetical. Automation is sweeping across industries, reducing the need for many jobs outright and radically altering the skills required for others. Manufacturing has been front and center in the minds of many Americans, but analysts have predicted that practically any job performed in a routine way is vulnerable to future computerization.
Changes are not taking place overnight. American employers have been grappling with a “skills gap” for years, as rigid technical abilities have become less and less important in today’s labor market. These skills have been edged out by capacities like communication, creative problem-solving, collaboration and adaptability. Such competencies will only become more critical as automation takes hold in the workplace. And while traditional four-year degree programs are not the only path to acquiring such skills, it’s estimated that by 2020, 65% of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.
If America’s only response is to attempt to hold the floodgates closed against the tide of these changes, I anticipate that we’ll see this mismatch worsen. The status quo in education and workforce training systems will not address the problem—certainly not in a way that provides equal opportunities to succeed for Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds. What’s called for, in the face of uncertainty about the future of work, is to ensure that we’re fortifying and building new pathways for Americans to gain the skills they need to meet the fluid needs of the 21st century labor market.
Two innovative approaches give me hope for what’s possible if we’re committed to working differently toward solving this problem:
Creating Pathways to Skill Up
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: people already employed, but working in low-wage, low-skilled jobs. There are millions of frontline workers at corporations across the country, in industries like healthcare, retail and food services. These types of jobs are often viewed as career “dead-ends.” Without new skills or education credentials, these workers are often up against a ceiling beyond which they simply can’t advance. But traditional pathways to earning a degree while on the job are consistently expensive, time consuming, and oftentimes completely disconnected from the job itself.
College for America (CfA) is pioneering a new model to address this sticky rung in the ladder of advancement. Run in partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, CfA works with companies to design competency-based degree programs geared toward teaching the specific skills and capacities employees need to advance to the next level.
CfA’s surveys have shown that although the vast majority of employers prefer to promote current staff rather than hiring from the outside, 87% considered employees’ lack of skills to be a major barrier. Now, through this model, for the sticker price of less than $3,000 a year employees at companies like Anthem, Inc.—one of America’s largest insurance providers—and McDonalds Corporation among many others are on the path to receiving an accredited degree.
Preparing the Next Generation
The next step is to look at how our education system is preparing young people—or, in too many cases, how it’s not—with skills they’ll need to thrive. As a postsecondary education becomes increasingly important for securing a well-paying job, college enrollment is on the decline. The most dramatic dip has been among low-income students; today, only 46% of low-income students enroll in college immediately after high school graduation.
In a Texas school district about ten miles north of the Rio Grande, students have a different story to tell. At PSJA Memorial Early College High School, senior Orlando Ochoa is preparing to graduate high school and will receive not one degree but two. With 86 college credit hours under his belt, Ochoa will receive an associate’s in Sociology alongside his high school diploma. Thanks to a model called early college high school, approximately 3,500 students across the district’s four high schools enroll in college-level courses each semester, entirely free of charge. In a district where 89% of students are considered economically disadvantaged, students are able to seize the opportunity to begin building skills and habits that they’ll need to thrive at a four-year-college or in the workforce.
Currently, there are 280 public high schools across the country—from Ohio to Georgia—that offer early college programs. Many offer curricula focused on STEM fields (science, technology engineering and math) and emphasis hands-on, project-based learning to position students to excel in fast-growing, high-wage industries, like health care and information technology. But that’s only 280 of 26,000. There’s huge potential to scale up. With enough political will, we can make the future that Orlando and his classmates are working toward within reach of more students.
At the heart of both of these innovative approaches is the recognition of a fairly basic principle: that institutions that traditionally operate in siloes—high schools, universities, private companies—are connected within a broader economic system. Once we accept that fact, the door is open to interesting, unprecedented partnerships and inventive solutions that will help equip all Americans to succeed in our changing economy.