When education fails to keep pace with technology, the result is inequality.” — The Economist
Globalization is triggering growing angst — if not downright anger — across the United States and Europe. But building walls and demonizing Muslims or Mexicans won’t fix the problem. The culprit is technology — specifically, how quickly technology is making old jobs obsolete and creating new ones. As we watch Amazon undercut traditional retail, we can imagine how quickly autonomous vehicles will replace drivers in the trucking, delivery, and taxi industries. The major issue facing our leaders isn’t how to keep old manufacturing jobs. It’s how to transform our public school curriculum to better train young people for 21st-century jobs, and how to retrain workers whose skills will be out of date in the near future.
While this all sounds daunting, there are two things every American should remember. First, no country on the planet is better prepared to educate its citizens with cutting-edge training in new technologies. No one. Second, we can combine our deep knowledge in technology with best practices from countries around the world — like Singapore, Germany and the UK — that have been leaders in retraining their workers. Here are four things we can do now.
Develop a 21st-century curriculum: Training for the jobs of the future needs to begin early. STEM classes are all the rage, but learning biology, trigonometry and physics won’t prepare students for jobs. We need to focus on teaching every child basic computer programming and app design. The good news is that kids can learn many of these languages in middle school. The best way to prepare our children for the future is to commit to teaching basic computer skills as early as possible.
Align education with private sector needs: What students learn in the classroom is rarely aligned with what employers need. Traditional public education, especially community colleges, should learn from the private sector what skills are in the most demand and develop curricula to teach those skills. Job-driven training is a crucial link between the classroom and the office.
Make lifelong learning a reality: To keep up with technological change, we need to empower workers to retrain themselves over their lifetimes. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and boot camps are two mechanisms for lifelong learning that help workers build new skills. Not everyone can get into Stanford or Harvard, but they can take MOOCs from the best professors at those schools. MOOCs make a strong technical education more accessible, at low or no cost, to anyone with interest and drive. Companies can even grant “nanodegrees” for completion of short six- to 10-week courses, giving workers portable credentials reflecting what they have learned. Similarly, training “boot camps” of a few weeks or months can help motivated workers learn new technical skills. Silicon Valley pioneered multiweek coding boot camps to teach workers programming skills. The challenge for political and private sector leaders is to make the boot camp model work for a wider set of people.
Provide access to learning credits: Many Americans will still have trouble funding their educations. The private sector and other countries have shown how we can bridge the funding gap. The American tech company UDC provides $12,000 in learning credits to its employees to take courses of their choosing. Singapore takes the concept to a new level, offering “Learning Credits” for all of their citizens. The government creates accounts that people are allowed to use only for job retraining throughout their lives. A similar program in the United States would help make lifelong learning possible for those with limited means.
We know what jobs of the future will look like: computer systems analysts, software app developers, social media marketing and others. No one understands these fields better than America, and no country has better resources to retrain its workers. Our job is to get beyond the silliness of the political season. We need to stop finger-pointing and start focusing on the issue that will determine whether America continues as the world’s greatest economy or whether we become a country looking in the rear-view mirror of history.