Column: Schools must look to future, not past

Mike Schmidt

Much has been written lately about the drastic changes taking place in the workplace as we transition from an industrial to a global knowledge economy. Automation and artificial intelligence technologies are poised to do away with large numbers of low-to-medium skilled jobs (a recent study estimated that as many as a third of all jobs in the U.S. could be impacted or eliminated by these technologies by 2030).

While it is impossible to predict what the future of work holds, it is clear the workplace will be dramatically different than a decade ago. The nature of work is undergoing a fundamental transition, placing an increased emphasis on essential 21st century skills such as innovation, adaptive reasoning, cultural and global awareness, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and technological literacy.

While these kinds of higher order thinking skills have always been important, the extraordinary pace of change today makes them in many cases the deciding factor in a global economic competition.

It is clear the jobs of today and tomorrow require employees capable of not just learning new skills, but also applying their expertise in complex, dynamic work environments. A great example of this change close to home is the modern automotive plant. Current day automotive manufacturing workers require increasingly specialized skills. They understand robotics and utilize 3-D printing in innovation labs to rapidly prototype solutions to production problems. Gigantic data analytics centers track the production process and feed reams of just-in-time data to teams of employees on the factory floor, who then must use that data to identify potential issues and collaborate to solve problems in real time.

Technology is being adapted to help employees become better at their jobs. But this requires workers who can apply existing knowledge to new challenges, problem solve, think critically, innovate, and collaborate with others.

The auto industry is not alone. The same skills are in demand across all fields today — from health care to financial services to retail. Michigan-based businesses are struggling to navigate through an increasingly competitive and fast-moving global marketplace for talent. Ensuring that the pipeline of talent coming from our state is robust and relevant to current workplace needs is a top concern.

Similarly, our partners in the education sector are struggling to adapt to this new reality. National, state, and local K-12 policies frequently focus schools and teachers on important but narrow academic outcomes. This often pushes out “non-core” courses and activities that engage young people and build the kinds of creative 21st century skills so necessary for success in the current world of work.

With the best of intentions, we are creating a situation rooted in the past. Students are taking more of the same academic courses they always have, measured by more standardized testing in the same way they always have, with the hope that the results will somehow be different this time. Clearly our approach to education needs to evolve to reflect the fast-moving nature of our current reality.

Few forums exist for educators, businesspeople, and policymakers to talk about the changing nature of work and corresponding need to change our approach to education in an innovation age. This conversation is more critical now than ever before. Success in this new world requires employees who are able to think creatively, work in (often global) teams, innovate, create, use technology to solve problems, and adapt existing knowledge to new and unprecedented circumstances. From an educational perspective, an increasingly complex and rapidly changing work environment demands that students develop both a significant academic knowledge base and the higher order thinking skills to use that knowledge effectively.

The governor’s Marshall Plan for Talent is an encouraging step in the right direction. Michigan must begin an urgent new conversation about the need for change in our state’s education system — our talent pipeline — to equip our students for success in a knowledge economy, keep existing Michigan businesses in the state, attract out of state businesses, and keep Michigan moving forward into the future.

Mike Schmidt is director of education and global community development at the Ford Motor Company Fund.