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Educating for Tomorrow's Job Market

Normal or not, the new economics require a different approach to education in America.

By Emily Rosenbaum

As the U.S. automobile industry scrambles to reinvent itself, one initiative that may inspire imitation across other sectors is the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC). The effort, funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the focus of a recent report by the National Governors Association, brings together auto manufacturers and community colleges across 12 states to identify and implement wide-ranging improvements in technical education for automotive manufacturing workers. Though neither new nor unprecedented, AMTEC may have found its moment.

“They got together and created a very interesting and very relevant curriculum that’s linked to the contexts that people are going to work in and tied to clear assessment and certification processes,“ says Victoria Marsick, TC Professor of Education and Co-Director of the College’s J.M. Huber Institute for Learning in Organizations.  “But skills training isn’t the only focus. There’s also an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving.”

The U.S. economy has been challenged for the past two years by a volatile stock market, cautious financial institutions, better investment opportunities overseas and increasing government intervention to rescue private-sector industries in crisis.  As a result, unemployment rates remain high and many jobs have been eliminated that may never be restored. Against that backdrop, there is a growing sense that America needs to go back to school -- that not only individuals, but entire industries and ultimately, schools themselves, need to rethink how they do business.

On the most immediate level, experts at TC suggest, efforts must take the form of technical retraining efforts like AMTEC that involve partnerships among government, industry and academia. But ultimately, the nation may need to revisit the kinds of critical thinking and civic ideals instilled by education itself.

“We are at a different point in history,” says Marsick of this combination of circumstances, which has been dubbed “the new normal” by the venture capitalist Roger McNamee.  “Either we must redefine ourselves in the world, or accept that we’re on the decline.”  

Getting rid of the silos
Redefinition is no simple matter. Recent stories report that conventional job training programs are not helping unemployed people find new jobs. Why? Either because the skills being taught are out of sync with how companies and industries are evolving, or worse, because companies and industries aren’t changing fast enough to grow and generate new jobs.

To rectify the situation, many experts believe that, as with the AMTEC effort, education must be developed in partnership with both government and employers. 

“One of the problems is that we are so siloed in our different efforts,” explains Marsick.  

W. Warner Burke, TC’s Edward Lee Thorndike Professor of Psychology and Education, believes that government, in particular, should be taking a more expanded role in job creation – particularly in the areas of infrastructure-building and manufacturing. “Support for our bridges, our roadways, our subways – all the things that are so important to keeping this country going -- is absolutely necessary and will create jobs,” Burke says. “Roosevelt did that, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it now. We’ve also lost our manufacturing edge.”  

While Henry Levin, the College’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, agrees, he also faults industry for failing to step up.

“Right now, the non-financial sectors of the economy are sitting on almost two trillion dollars, which they are not investing in people, in employment, in plants or equipment.  They’re just sitting on it.  The excuse is that they don’t know what’s going to happen.”  

Levin believes President Obama must step forward to get that money released into the economy. 

“A President has to use his bully pulpit to get out there and to use some emotion,” he says. “He needs to call on industry and say, ‘These are the people who, because they are committed to this country, have to take chances and have to start to develop their own ways of investing in our future.’”  Simply put, Levin says, “industry has to be embarrassed into doing something.”

In Levin’s view, industry’s inaction is rooted in an outlook that predates the current market uncertainty.  American society as a whole is too focused on short-term outcomes, he says, and employers are no exception.  Rather than investing in the education of their workforce, they typically sit back and wait for workers to arrive trained for the job.  Yet when they have acted otherwise, the payoff has been obvious. During World War II, for example, when most of the trained workers were serving in the armed forces, many untrained American women went to work and learned the skills they needed on the job.  There is no reason why industry can’t repeat that success today, Levin says, by training the available work force to suit their needs.

One venue where that is happening is right in TC’s back yard: In April, IBM and Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science launched a new initiative called “Smarter Students for a Smaller Planet,” aimed at addressing the growing need for people with the skills to fill high-level, strategic green jobs.

The initiative is focused less on training people with skills like solar panel installation and wind turbine maintenance, and – as described by SolveClimate News -- more on “finding and training the scientists and engineers who, theoretically, are going to wizard us out of this global warming mess.” IBM will provide Columbia with, among other things, free access to software related to energy management.

“We’re going to take a lot of that curricula and those tools and start embedding them in our first-year design course, which is a core requirement that every engineering student should take,” said Jack McGourty, the engineering school’s Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies.
Indeed, job retraining programs work only when they are designed for the needs of employers, says Thomas R. Bailey, George & Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education and Director of TC’s Community College Research Center and the National Center for Postsecondary Research. “I think that educational institutions need to be in close touch with their local economies,” Bailey says.  “They must understand where the job openings are, where the employers are needing people.  Try to organize programs that will prepare people for those jobs in a relatively short amount of time.”  Programs suited to the needs of specific employers in a particular time and place will help match job-seekers with jobs in the short-term.

Beyond technical upgrades
However, training programs that teach technical skills are only part of the solution.  Citing a framework developed by Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz, Eleanor Drago-Severson, TC Associate Professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership, points out that there are two kinds of challenges people face in today’s complex world: technical challenges and adaptive. Technical challenges “are challenges about which we can clearly identify both the problem and a solution,” Drago-Severson says.  “And, even if we cannot solve them ourselves, we can hire an expert who can.”

On the other hand, adaptive challenges, “which are becoming increasingly prevalent in our workplaces, are challenges for which neither the problem nor the solution is clear or identifiable. Not only that, we have no idea how to solve that particular kind of challenge and neither does anyone else. What these kinds of challenges require is the capacity to be able to handle tremendous amounts of complexity and ambiguity.”  In other words, Drago-Severson says, “what is needed is the developmental capacity to learn one’s way through the ambiguity and complexity such challenges create.” She adds that she defines “development” as  “increases in our cognitive, affective or emotional, and interpersonal capacities that enable us to better manage the complexity of work, leadership and life.” Recent research shows that most adults need more than training in order to develop this kind of developmental capacity, Drago-Severson says.
“Supporting adult development is critical in today’s world since it can help us do that better and also help us to manage adaptive challenges.”

Yet traditional job training programs don’t focus on adaptive challenges, but rather developing technical capacities.

In order to succeed in the marketplace, people are often asked to demonstrate adaptive capacities they simply don’t have.  “Oftentimes, we ask each other to do things – for example participate in a team and share our perspective, or engage in conflict towards a better solution – and most adults in the United States, according to research, can’t do those things yet,” Drago-Severson says. She goes on to say that “if we can help ourselves and each other to grow to have greater cognitive, affective, interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities, we will deal better with the unfortunate and hopefully changing situation of what’s called the new normal.” 

A new take on an old staple
To build those kinds of capacities, many experts believe, the nation must revisit a longstanding but oft-discredited source: liberal arts education.

“Everybody thinks that you can’t survive unless you have an M.B.A. degree,” says Burke. “There is evidence all over again of how important a liberal arts education is for being successful in life and in work, and so I don’t want, as a function of being frightened about unemployment, for us to get ourselves trained more and more in business.  I think we need to get ourselves educated and trained more and more in how to consider life and the world and what’s important and values, and things of that nature rather than just concentrating so much on helping people to get jobs.”  Skills training will get people jobs, but for schools to focus on skills at the expense of liberal arts is a mistake.  “Almost irrespective of level of education, our fundamental job is to teach people how to think. At the community college level, obviously that’s a bit more remedial and rudimentary, and it’s important that that be focusing on basic skills – how to write, how to read, how to communicate.  But the basis of that is how to think better.  At the four-year college level, [we need to] really renew our dedication to the liberal arts.  Because that’s what liberal arts will do.”

That’s not to say that the concept of a liberal arts education isn’t itself in need of an overhaul. Over the past decade, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has been leading an effort to retool some of the basic tenets of curricular approaches at institutions ranging from major institutions to two-year technical colleges.

“AAC&U is making a case that education in America has to change,” says Lee Knefelkamp, TC Professor of Psychology and Education and a Senior Fellow with AAC&U who is working with an initiative at the organization called LEAP (for Liberal Education and America’s Promise). “In the nineteenth century, colleges and universities offered a common core of just three majors – medicine, law and religion. In the twentieth century, students began covering an increasingly broad range of topics in the early and middle stages of college, balanced by the depth of the major. In the twenty-first century, we need to achieve both depth and breadth across all four years.”

Liberal education needs to become integrated and cumulative, Knefelkamp says, supported by high-impact practices such experiential learning, integrative seminars, capstone experiences and student research. She adds that a LEAP poll has found that more than 70 percent of employers want colleges to place more emphasis on science and technology, global learning, teamwork skills in diverse groups, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.

“The basic liberal arts education is important for preparing people for the types of changes that we’re seeing,” says Bailey.  “To some extent, it’s a little bit in conflict with a big emphasis on trying to provide shorter-term training to help people find jobs now, in existing industries. But I think both of them have to take place.” 

It’s a complicated prescription – calling on industry to rethink its goals, government to invest and motivate, and education to train people to face both technical and adaptive demands.  But then it may be that complicated is the real new normal.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010


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