Soraya M. Coley
In the time it took you to read this sentence, the future became the past. Albert Einstein said he never thought of the future “because it comes soon enough”. Of course, for Einstein, all time was relative!
But for those who dedicate themselves today to educating the leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow, time is of the essence. If we are always one step behind the future, how do we keep ahead of the curve?
We must examine how the nature of work is evolving and how higher education intends to evolve with it.
Some futurists paint a bleak picture of a world in which workers are supplanted by machines, creating a stark landscape of lost souls outdone by their own inventions. It’s an overly simplistic and dystopian view that ignores the fact that the thirst for knowledge and a willingness to take risks have always driven humankind to progress.
The university has fostered that drive for nearly a thousand years. Although there are challenges, we must continue to nurture the critical relationship between the liberal arts and sciences to create a path to a sustainable future.
As we leap from one stunning technological advancement to the next, with the disruption that inevitably occurs, we must prepare students to adapt to the needs of the ever-changing Future of Work. But educators must also be willing to lead the conversation about the value and nature of work. While it is true that work provides income, a career is about much more than a paycheck. Work offers purpose and helps to form our identity. Ideally, it offers the opportunity to serve others. Work improves our communities locally and globally.
Our duty is to understand the challenges students will face, the essential knowledge they will require, and the skills they must possess to succeed. How do we teach students to cope with disruption — in the workplace and in society? How do we help them identify their gifts so that they can achieve their potential? The speed of technological advancement today is breathtaking, and students require technical skills to compete. But we know that as skills are mastered, new ones will soon be needed.
That’s just one reason an education cannot focus exclusively on high-tech proficiency. Students must be taught to learn and adapt, and to embrace learning throughout their lives. Mastering new technology is vital, but thinking critically and learning to solve problems are the real keys to unlocking opportunities. In our growing gig economy, most people will change jobs at least a dozen times during their working lives. If students can gain a mindset along with a skill set, they will be well-positioned to succeed.
A shifting labor landscape demands adaptability, resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, cultural competency, perseverance and the ability to communicate. Equally important is engagement — making the connections that enrich the human experience.
We already see that artificial intelligence, automation and analytics are shaping the Future of Work because they are shaping us now. But for all the buzz (and the fear) about AI, there is no question that the Future of Work has a human face. It’s inevitable that more of us will be working alongside machines and computers to get the job done, whatever “the job” is. We already do this today when we run an Excel spreadsheet or ask Siri for directions.
Big data alone can never replace big ideas, but it can help us work smarter. For humans, adaptation will yield opportunity. Rapid change can be overwhelming, but we’ve been here before. The Industrial Age brought life-altering advancements, freeing us to launch a Digital Age in which information connects us in ways once inconceivable.
Although higher education must keep pace with the needs of the job market as a vital link between employers and new graduates, earning a degree is about much more than landing a job. The university of tomorrow cannot become a “coding college” focused only on job training that cranks out graduates who have mastered algorithms but are unable to work on a team to solve problems. A broad and deep education, with less emphasis on the type of degree a student earns, will ensure they remain competitive. So, what are the core skills that both a history major and an engineer need to be successful?
In a 2013 national survey of business and nonprofit leaders by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of respondents said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” As the president of a polytechnic university, one of only about a dozen in the country, I see firsthand the advantages of an experiential education that offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves in multiple disciplines. Our faculty emphasizes hands-on learning where students solve problems creatively, take intelligent risks and work collaboratively.
But a comprehensive education must provide even more. In addition to critical relationships with faculty, students should engage with their communities, corporations and local government leaders. This is a bedrock of democracy. The greatest investment we can make is in people — to help them work with others different from themselves, and to evaluate competing points of view.
“Your brain is not a hard drive,” Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination, told the audience at an Adobe Think Tank conversation in early 2017. He believes machines will take over most jobs in the coming decades, but says people shouldn’t worry. “We need to embrace what humans are good at,” Johnson said. “We’re great communicators. We have emotional intelligence. All of this [automation] frees us up to be more human.” And he is encouraged that more free time will mean more opportunity to raise the standard of living for everyone: “I tell people if you want to prepare for the jobs of the future, just be human.”
We also know that the face of humanity in the workplace is increasingly diverse, and that with ethnic, racial and gender difference comes diversity of perspective and experience. As educators, we must insist on an inclusive mission that makes clear how to engage a diverse student body and the communities we serve. We must help create a society that values lifelong learning by making education more accessible, especially for the adult learner. Online education will continue growing and technology will enable information to be shared more widely. The Future of Work is about more than automation, calculation and faster computers. It’s about adaptation, human engagement and what deep learning and meaningful work can bring to individuals’ lives and the collective good. It’s about our connectedness to each other. Rather than simply responding to the nation’s future needs, higher education must help set the agenda. By preparing students today, we set a course for tomorrow’s success.
Because Einstein was right, of course. The future is already here.
Dr. Soraya Moore Coley believes that a quality education remains one of the few pathways to social and economic well-being in a global society. Often referred to as a “student-centered and community-minded” administrator, Dr. Coley has built bridges between the university and the community through her service, her research, and her work as an administrator. With over 28 years of academic and administrative experience, Dr. Coley is the sixth President of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the first woman to serve in that role. Previous appointments included Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University, Bakersfield, and Senior Research Fellow at Children and Family Future’s National Center on Child Welfare and Substance Abuse. At Alliant International University, she was the Provost/ Vice President for Academic Affairs and is Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fullerton, where she also served as Dean of the College of Human Development and Community Service. Dr. Coley earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Lincoln University (PA), and her MSW and Ph.D. degrees in Social Planning and Policy at Bryn Mawr College’s School of Social Work and Social Research.