Ways education can adapt to changing economic demands

Students use technology and digital tools in every part of their lives, except school.
Students use technology and digital tools in every part of their lives, except school. Fotolia

Our education system faces urgent demands as it seeks to address the work skills crisis brought about by accelerating technological advances.

Employers require less manual labor. Automation and related technologies increase productivity and create new jobs, which require more education and training. The number of workers who will be left behind in years ahead is likely to grow.

Larry Summers, former treasury secretary and director of the National Economic Council, points out that one in seven prime-age American men are out of work, a number that could grow to one in three in 30 years.

“Finding work for everyone is going to be the central challenge of our politics over the next generation,” he told David Axelrod in The Axe Files.

In his 2015 book, “Humans Need Not Apply,” Jerry Kaplan asks what’s to become of surplus workers with obsolete skills. His answer: the “opportunity for skill acquisition must be explicit and omnipresent.”

U.S. Chamber of Commerce economist J.D. Foster writes that “tomorrow’s workers will have to be perpetual students to keep up, while lesser-skilled workers will find themselves increasingly marginalized and sometimes, ultimately, replaced by technology in some form or fashion.”

The common theme is that only education and training can save American workers. How to do that is a huge challenge.

“Anyone concerned about income inequality … should take the issue very seriously,” Foster says.

Government training programs are part of the solution. But businesses also will need to provide more skill training, and there must be change “in personal and cultural attitudes toward career-centered lifelong learning,” Foster says.

If Foster’s “career-centered lifelong learning” is an essential step to address Kaplan’s “surplus workers with obsolete skills,” business, schools and government will have to recast fundamental assumptions about their role and responsibility for our approach to the availability of the learning required to succeed in modern work and life.

More substantive business and education partnerships – not unlike those recently proposed by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – will be needed to achieve a more productive combination of learning and employment opportunities.

In that process, the education system would have to revisit the boundaries of its tasks beyond preschool to graduate school as well as its general adherence to an Industrial Age mindset of four walls and limited years, months, days and hours of learning activity.

A central question in that context will be, who will pay the bill?

Given the expectations that workplace technology advances will generate great wealth, one obvious consideration would be to find a way to capture some of that wealth and invest it in new contexts of learning and skills development.

Kaplan suggests a different approach: a “job mortgage,” a new financial instrument secured by future earnings. It would require incentive-based collaboration between schools and employers and include tax breaks for employers if they honor commitments to hire people who have acquired specific skills.

School costs might also be met in part by structural rearrangements taking better advantage of the potential for anytime/anywhere learning made possible by the very technological advances affecting the workplace.

We must recognize that our approach to learning requires rethinking to fashion a systemic transformation. Here are a few things worth rethinking:

▪ The context of learning how to learn (and think) has changed and curricular adaptations need to follow. It may not be extreme to consider 1s and 0s as important, or more so, in future communications than the ABC’s.

▪ We should consider collapsing the walls separating the study of liberal arts and sciences.

▪ Given the prominence that analytics plays in business, there needs to be greater emphasis on analytical skills.

▪ Globalization is a reality, and requires workers with language and cultural understandings far beyond what we now ask of our students.

The Legislature has its own Technology and Innovation Caucus, which “seeks to make sure our next generation receives the proper training and education to be competitive in this new world economy.” As we enter a new legislative cycle, I look forward to seeing a caucus agenda that aspires to do just that.

John M. Hein, a public policy consultant, is former director of governmental relations for the California Teachers Association.