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Businesses: Step Up for Education or Face a Continuing Skills Gap

Skills, jobs, technology, robots, manufacturing, middle class. Since the election, it seems like one of these is a required word in every other headline. For those of us still trying to make sense of what happened last November, a look at the economy and the skills gap is a good place to start.

The current administration is focused on jobs lost to globalization—reinforcing "global" as a dirty word. While jobs have clearly been lost to outsourcing, economists agree that automation and technology are bigger job killers. New jobs are simultaneously created, but displaced workers frequently don't have the right skills—often technical skills—to fill them. A McKinsey report predicts that automation will affect every occupation, including those in education and health thought to be relatively safe from automation. The report estimates that forty-five percent of all human jobs could be automated, placing us all at risk of being displaced.

The call to arms now is teaching for skills, not content, and to instill a love of lifelong learning that can allow one to navigate an ever-evolving job landscape—it is estimated that today's graduates will have 17 jobs over five different careers. But what comes across loud and clear is that these skills—both technical and 21st century—need to be taught through a global lens. And work-based learning needs to be a critical part of that training. To make that happen, we need the support of business and industry.

College is Not for All

No longer can you graduate with a Bachelor's degree and expect to get a job. Students graduating from humanities programs that don't provide technical skills are finding a very low return on investment for their degrees. Many students in these more traditional college programs—41 percent—feel they are only "moderately prepared" for the world of work and 63 percent believe internships or professional experiences would help them, according to a recent McGraw Hill study. Contrast this with students choosing different pathways—like engineering, health, and business sectors. They are finding jobs, perhaps because their training programs combine hard skills with 21st century skills and work-based learning.

Yet this too may be shifting. A recent BBC piece highlighted Jean-Philippe Michel, a career coach in Ottawa, Canada, who believes that students need to be prepared for micro-jobs or a portfolio career. The idea is that workers will be prepared with, and consequently hired for, a solid set of skills in order to solve specific challenges or individual tasks, perhaps working on many of them, simultaneously, for different organizations. No longer will they be working for one boss for years—instead we may become an army of specialized consultants at large.

This is already becoming apparent—workers at traditional companies today are finding their roles less defined and requiring an increasingly diverse skill set. The article points out that larger companies like Cisco and Mastercard are allowing employees to choose projects to work on from various departments—trying to mimic this move toward the gig economy and keep younger workers more engaged and satisfied.

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology as the Global Leveler

Technology is at the forefront of this shift and its advance is moving faster than it ever has before, leading Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to name this the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He writes that it is "characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres." In other words, technology will be part of everything, from self-driving cars to clothes to our bodies. New global digital platforms are completely flattening the competition for buyers on an international scale. Using your smartphone, you can buy and sell almost anything, including services, from anywhere. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution revolves around the consumer; in order to compete on a global scale, we must innovate based on an understanding of their needs, which vary depending on culture. With half of the world's population already online—including 99 percent of American 18- to 29-year-olds and more than a quarter of all Africans—there is ample opportunity to connect directly to customers. By 2020, it is estimated that 80 percent of all adults in the world will own a smartphone.

Through a Global Lens

Technology and an understanding of your diverse customer base are just two reasons to obtain not just skills, but global skills. Production and innovation are another. Demand from abroad now affects one in three jobs in the business sector and products are no longer produced completely in one country—workers around the world may contribute to a single product, according to Andreas Schleicher, Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills.

The services economy too will increasingly require global skills, including bilingualism. A recent study of the Washington, DC, region showed a 148 percent increase in job postings requiring bilingualism. Even those with only some second language skills are in demand—those job postings surged 131 percent since 2010. The number one employer cited is the MGM National Harbor hotel, closely followed by Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Business is Critical

All of this means we need to change our education system—and fast. However, companies are betting that we can't do it: a new report from the Pew Research Center states that 30 percent of business leaders and technology analysts doubt the education system is going to keep up with labor market demands.  

business.pngWell you know what? If they are correct, they will be partially to blame. As Schleicher points out, "countries' comparative advantages always emerge from the interaction between skills and industry requirements—which underlines the importance of connecting the world of learning with the world of work." He points out that the United States still has a comparative advantage in complex business services, but we no longer have the specialization for advanced services or manufacturing. Therefore, we need business to help us connect their requirements to the current education system. But it can't stop there. It means providing students with opportunities for apprenticeships, internships, or job shadowing. It means helping local schools build the high-quality career and technical systems they need to produce the workers they want. And it means advocating for education funding and policies that can support these changes and make them possible. (Right now would be an excellent time to get started on this one!)

To be sure, there is movement in this direction. But to massively overhaul the system in a timely manner, we need large-scale investment from business and industry. Given that the current federal government is bending over backwards to make every possible concession to big business, I think that's the least they can do, don't you?

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

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