Education for an old economy


What worries me the most about the direction education policy is taking is that it seems increasingly disconnected from the economy of today and tomorrow. That we are trying to align education to an economy of stable jobs and occupations in an economy where both are increasingly unstable because of globalization and technology. And even when a job or occupation is stable the skill requirements of doing that job –– and therefore staying employed –– are constantly changing largely because of smarter and smarter machines.

What is most distressing is that this focus on skills needed to get an immediate job seems to be mainly driven by policy makers trying to meet the needs of Michigan employers who are having trouble filling some jobs rather than the long term needs of students. P-20 education –– from early childhood through an undergraduate degree –– should be focused on building the broad skills that will give students the best chance for a forty year career, not a first job.

Not building broad skills that allow one to constantly adjust to a changing labor market, clearly will effect both the employment and earnings of individuals. But also will hold back Michigan’s and the nation’s economy. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz demonstrate in their must read book, The Race Between Education and Technology, human capital is a prime driver of economic growth.

Thomas Friedman writes in a New York Times column entitled “It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q”:

Alas, though, every boss now also has cheaper, easier, faster access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives. When the world gets this hyperconnected, adds (Microsoft’s Craig) Mundie, the speed with which every job and industry changes  also goes into hypermode. “In the old days,” he said, “it was assumed that your educational foundation would last your whole lifetime. That is no longer true.” Because of the way every industry — from health care to manufacturing to education — is now being transformed by cheap, fast, connected computing power, the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning. More and more things you know and tools you use “are being made obsolete faster,” added Mundie. (Emphasis added.)

What skills are needed to have a successful career? Friedman continues: What are those broad skills? Friedman continues:

How to adapt? It will require more individual initiative. We know that it will be vital to have more of the “right” education than less, that you will need to develop skills that are complementary to technology rather than ones that can be easily replaced by it and that we need everyone to be innovating new products and services to employ the people who are being liberated from routine work by automation and software. The winners won’t just be those with more I.Q. It will also be those with more P.Q. (passion quotient) and C.Q. (curiosity quotient) to leverage all the new digital tools to not just find a job, but to invent one or reinvent one, and to not just learn but to relearn for a lifetime.

A revealing New York Times article entitled “To Stay Relevant in a Career, Workers Train Nonstop” explores how workers are adjusting to a labor market where jobs, occupations and skill requirements are constantly changing. The article explains:

The need to constantly adapt is the new reality for many workers, well beyond the information technology business. Car mechanics, librarians, doctors, Hollywood special effects designers — virtually everyone whose job is touched by computing — are being forced to find new, more efficient ways to learn as retooling becomes increasingly important not just to change careers, but simply to stay competitive on their chosen path. …  Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at the London Business School, has coined a term for this necessity: “serial mastery.” “You can’t expect that what you’ve become a master in will keep you valuable throughout the whole of your career, and you want to add to that the fact that most people are now going to be working into their 70s,” she said, adding that workers must try to choose specialties that cannot be outsourced or automated.

In a terrific defense of the value of law school Lawrence E. Mitchell, dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school, writes in a New York Times op ed: … the focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more. (Emphasis added.)

Law schools, of course, are on the list –– along with a college prep focus in high school, the liberal arts in college and certain other professional schools –– that policy makers and the pundits claim should be deemphasized because there supposedly is too much supply and too little employer demand. Even if you assume that policy makers and pundits are any good at predicting near term labor market demand –– and the evidence is they aren’t –– Mitchell is right that the value of education increasingly needs to be measured over a career of forty to fifty years. And that is going to increasingly require building a foundation of broad skills that will equip each of us, and even more so, our kids to be agile and lifelong learners in a world with fewer and fewer stable jobs and occupations.

About Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.