Monday, August 22, 2016

Skills for the "New Economy"

As the fall semester begins, many of us at the community college watch enrollment.  After all, our budget is impacted positively or negatively based upon enrollment.  Several weeks before the start of the semester, student services personnel call students from previous semesters who aren’t yet registered for the fall semester to see what they can do to help the student get registered.  Those overseeing this task report out their findings and we review processes and procedures accordingly.  This year a new trend began emerging for me.  This semester several students reported that they were not coming back to school because they believed there was not a job for them after graduation.  They just didn’t feel like going to college was going to result in a better paying job. 

I suspect many are frustrated by the “new economic normal” that has evolved.  Computers have replaced people in a variety of jobs and other jobs have moved off-shore leaving people to wonder what the future holds for the middle class and whether or not good paying jobs will return.  I suspect what we in the higher education sector need to understand is the nature of the “new economy” and how we can better prepare our students to enter this new reality.  The axiom, “What was good enough for me so it should be good enough for you” is no longer true.

The quest to understand the economic world that our students are entering unveiled a number of interesting ideas.  First, the labor market of the future will require that our graduates be proficient in solving ill-structured problems, synthesizing information and performing non-routine tasks for which there are no step-by-step processes.[1]  Second, we need to be prepared to modify our teaching so that we help students become proficient with those skills.  However, building proficiency in problem solving, synthesizing information, and performing non-routine tasks requires that we build upon other skills.  According to James Heckman the ability to acquire skills is dependent upon skills developed at an earlier age.[2] So, will the students arrive to us with the necessary skills they need in order to gain proficiency in these 21st century skills? 

In order for students to develop proficiency in solving ill-structured problems, they need to arrive to us being able to read expository text carefully and critically, search for information efficiently and know what information is reliable and relevant, develop logic models for understanding cause and effect and then be able to communicate their solution so that others can understand. 

More than ever it is time what we re-examine our education framework to ensure that we are preparing our students for a global and technical economy so that we remain competitive. 

[1] Levy, Frank and Murnane, Richard J., Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work.  (Third Way, 2016), p.  15.
[2] Ibid, 19.

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