Colleges: 1 in 3 tech experts think your grads won't be ready for jobs of the future

It's a question that's increasingly been on the forefront of educators' and employers minds: is automation going to completely replace human jobs in the future?

In a recent report, Pew Research Center partnered with Elon University to find out whether educators, business leaders, and technology analysts really believe this will happen—and what higher education would need to do to keep humans in the workforce

To compile the report, Pew Research Center and Elon surveyed 1,408 technology experts, who included a wide variety of policy professionals, academics, internet researchers, digital ethicists, and members of civil society organizations. Of the respondents, two-thirds said education and job training will successfully adapt to train workers for the increasingly automated economy.

But one-third said they had "no confidence" that education and job training will evolve quickly enough to meet labor market demands. Some of these skeptical respondents said they were primarily worried about generating the political will needed to incite large-scale reform of education and the economy.

For example, Danah Boyd, a principle researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data and Society, says she has "complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address these gaps [but] I have zero confidence in [the U.S.] having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skills training."

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Other pessimistic respondents focused more on the limits of human learning. Andrew Walls, the managing vice president at Gartner, told the researchers that "barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue... there will be no quantum leap in our ability to 'up-skill' people."

But the respondents who said it could be done—that higher education could provide the antidote for a completely automated economy—argued that colleges teach their students soft skills that robots could never mimic.

Both groups of respondents agreed that higher education and employers alike need to do a better job training and educating students in both technical and soft skills—not just one or the other.

The report highlights the importance of teaching data science and coding, but it also advises the next generation of workers not to "underestimate the importance of... emotional intelligence, or the ability to gracefully manage employees, co-workers, and clients."

To keep automation from outpacing humans, the respondents said:

  • Employers will need to provide more on-the-job learning;
  • Workers will need to acquire credentials and badges, and focus on work portfolios rather than resumes; and
  • Higher ed must continue to be a place where students "learn how to learn" and to adapt to new situations.

(Miller, "The Upshot," New York Times, 5/3; Paquette, Washington Post, 5/3).

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