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This story is part of our Map to the Middle Class project, where we ask readers what they want us to investigate about educational pathways to financial stability. This question comes from Chris Burns in Ohio. He asks: Not knowing what tasks will be automated or what future jobs will look like, how do schools train for a workplace that does not yet exist?
We’ve all heard the dire predictions about the coming robot apocalypse. Automation threatens 47 percent of jobs. As many as 800 million people worldwide could be displaced and need to find new jobs by 2030. Middle-class families will be hit the hardest.
Chris Burns has heard these sorts of predictions, too. He’s also seen just how fast changes are happening in his own industry, information technology. Burns works for a business near Cincinnati that sells cloud computing and other technology services, and he says there is a big shortage of skilled IT employees both nationally and in his metro area. His company has started working with local high schools to introduce students and teachers to tech tools and career paths, but he wonders whether it’s enough and what sorts of approaches he ought to be taking given the uncertainty around what jobs will look like in the future.
I asked Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, for his thoughts on this question. Carnevale told me that, first of all, the story of robots creating mass unemployment has been overhyped. To the extent that automation alters people’s work lives, it’ll affect the tasks they do, but few occupations will be completely wiped out. We still need people training to be computer programmers and nurses and engineers — some of those individuals may just have different specialties within their fields in a decade or two.
Burns’ industry, though, is one that’ll experience some of the biggest whiplash. “He’s sitting pretty close to the sun,” Carnevale says.
Schools just aren’t going to be able to keep up with every tech development — companies can’t always keep up — so a lot of the learning will have to take place on the job. Carnevale says that internships are a great way for companies to offer students a chance to get both a taste of a career and pick up new skills. Older workers will also need employers to step in and help them train on new tools.
For his part, Burns told me he suspects that “soft skills” — things like critical thinking, problem solving and communication — are going to be key and that those abilities will serve young people no matter how their jobs evolve with new technologies. The growing importance of soft skills is a topic we’ve written about here at Hechinger. And Carnevale says he shares this perspective.
“In the old days,” says Carnevale, “you took orders from the person above you and had a very fixed job.” Managers were the only people who needed to know how to write memos, organize people into teams or give instructions clearly. But as the economy has shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy, he says, “all those skills are necessary all the time.”
For educators, the big challenge is figuring out how best to teach students not just to receive knowledge but to apply it. Some states have begun mandating that schools teach soft skills. Educators are also experimenting with approaches like “project-based” and “student-centered” learning, that encourage collaboration and solving complex problems that have applications for the real world.
And schools are welcoming business leaders like Burns into their classrooms. In the Cincinnati area, Burns and his colleagues are taking mini computers into schools, introducing students and teachers to the power of information technology, and working with one school to develop an IT-focused career track. The precise contours of the IT workplace of the future aren’t yet known, but this seems clear: the industry still seems like a pretty safe bet for employment well into the future.
This story about the future of work was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.