The Future of Work

“The future of work is one where learning will always be on.”

By Alex Chediak Published on August 26, 2017

What will the world of work look like over the next decade or two? What skills should young workers be developing? How should colleges be retooling what they do to increase the odds that their graduates are well prepared? These are the kinds of questions Jeff Selingo explores in a series of white papers entitled “The Future of Work and What It Means for Higher Education.” Selingo is the author of the helpful book There is Life after College, reviewed here.  

Automation and the Gig Economy

Selingo first looks at automation and the gig economy. Yes, automation means that some jobs may be eliminated. But it also means that most jobs will be transformed. That means new skillsets will be required to do these same jobs. We’ll have to learn ways to add value to the machines. As we do so, our standard of living can be expected to rise, as it has in the past at these moments. Technical literacy will help, but soft skills like communication and emotional intelligence will also be important.

The gig economy refers to more than blue collar jobs, though the growing popularity of services like Uber and TaskRabbit is real. Did you know that Google’s Alphabet Inc. has about the same number of full-time employees, about 70,000, as it does contractors? These contractors are doing marketing work, data analysis, and reviewing legal documents. A 2016 study from a pair of Princeton economists found that contract and freelance work have grown by 50 percent in the last decade — accounting for nearly all the employment growth in that timeframe. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 20-30 percent of the working age population in the U.S. is involved in freelance work. Most do it by choice, perhaps on top of their day job.

But freelancers don’t get annual reviews or guidance on career development. They must be self-directed. So curiosity, resilience and the ability to navigate ambiguity become more important. As Neil Jensen, vice president for corporate strategy at Workday.com says, “The future of work is one where learning will always be on.”

What Can Educators Do?

Selingo offers five suggestions for how educators can better meet the demands of the 21st century workforce.

  1. Add more career exploration and college-level work before students get to college. For example, Colorado is trying to make apprenticeships commonplace for high schoolers. We’re not just talking about welding and plumbing, but also hands-on training in financial services, information technology and health care. Dual enrollment is a great way to give students a head start in experiencing college-level academics.
  2. Sometimes techies downplay the liberal arts, but students need both major-specific skills and a general education. Selingo recommends a required set of courses to impart basic skills like problem solving, critical thinking and communication, but with opportunities for students to track their progress in specific areas. This will encourage self-assessment and self-directed learning to address deficiencies. And it will get students to buy into the fact that learning must be actively pursued, not passively received.
  3. Restructure majors with input from more than one discipline. For example, an environmental science major could be restructured based on input from engineers, physicists, health scientists, statisticians, economists and law faculty (if available). Students will develop multiple perspectives on their discipline, becoming both deep in their field and broad in their ability to relate to other fields.
  4. Require a co-op experience. A co-op weaves hands-on work experience directly into the curriculum, with students alternating semesters between work and school. Other kinds of experiential learning such as internships, study abroad and research projects are good, too. But co-ops arguably provide the best work experience because of the direct tie-in to the classroom.
  5. Integrate on-campus activities into the curriculum. Students often receive relevant learning experience, like leadership, service or conflict-resolution, from their time in clubs, on athletic teams or in residence halls. Look for ways to value that experience and “count” it as a part of their development.

What Can We All Do?

Each of us must resist a passive mindset that assumes we’ve arrived and can now coast into our golden years. As Christians, we work not just for the money, but to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even as computers take on more tasks, we should be motivated to find new and better ways to provide useful services and products. This means continuing to develop our minds and our skills, honoring the God who gave us our intellectual and physical capacities. Whatever we do should be done with all our hearts, for the LORD and not just for our boss or clients (Colossians 3:23).

Lastly, as we retool our skillsets, we can do so with peace, knowing that God will provide us with ways to support ourselves and our families.

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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