The New Workforce: Aligning Jobs and Skills in the Age of Tech Disruption

By PK Agarwal, Regional Dean and CEO, Northeastern University-Silicon Valley

Passionate discussions about jobs and careers crop up everywhere these days. In coffee shops, classrooms, and caucuses, the debates center on living wages, losing jobs overseas, the gig economy, and the imbalance between student debt and career opportunities. As presidential politics heat up, many of the most divisive topics center on income disparity, access to quality education, and the future of work. A current of urgency runs through these intense national conversations. We are aware of how rapidly the world is changing and it often feels beyond our control. Technology continues to disrupt what we know, replacing it with new challenges for which we feel ill-equipped.

The World Economic Forum’s recent report sounded a warning about how the nature of work will be transformed in the coming years by advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. We already understand that growing numbers of manufacturing and agricultural jobs are being automated in this way. But there’s a new reality to grapple with, and fast: two-thirds of service sector jobs are low-paying roles in retail, food service, and similar workplaces that are also ripe for automation. Service and manual jobs of all sorts will disappear or require employees able to interact with technology at higher skill levels.

The US economy is brimming with transformative potential, but the lack of appropriately skilled workers dampens innovation and progress. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be one million more IT jobs than computer science students. Such shortages are particularly acute in IT-intensive economies like Silicon Valley. In the Bay Area, there are currently 13,700 computer science job openings but only 416 master’s degrees in computer science were granted this year. We have to build a pipeline now to funnel retrained individuals into the technical fields that underpin our new economy: renewable energy, health informatics, social and visual media, cyber security, cloud infrastructure, Internet of Things, data analytics, and so on.

Consider the example of autonomous (driverless) vehicles. This one development will potentially displace 5 million people who drive for a living. This shift will also sharply reduce the need for related jobs (e.g., auto sales and repair, parking attendants, and insurance brokers). We are 5-10 years from autonomous vehicles hitting the streets—there’s not much time to retrain drivers for more tech-enabled careers. Such gaps between outdated and emerging skill sets will cause significant workforce disruption for years to come. 

Everyone from the President on down is addressing the need for better STEM education at the primary and secondary levels. In the near term, however, the urgency is about retraining and up-skilling adults who are now in the prime of their working years. We’re talking about everyone from newly minted college graduates who can’t find satisfying work, to adults striving to move out of minimum wage jobs, to knowledge workers adding skill sets to keep pace with technology advances. The challenge is to build more on-ramps, bridging pragmatic educational opportunities to those seeking to improve their capabilities and their socioeconomic status.

Building these bridges and pipelines requires education and training models to be more closely aligned with industry and the public sector needs. If the market demands millions more advanced degrees in computer science or engineering, we’d better be sure those degrees translate into real-world careers at the other end of the pipeline. We can do this by forming closer partnerships with industry and providing flexible, experiential learning environments.

The challenges of those in transition or facing transition are daunting. This community is juggling childcare, eldercare, and skyrocketing housing prices that require their continued employment without the luxury of attending school full time. These challenges apply not only to our blue collar workers, but also those engineers needing to hone their business acumen and leadership skills. For these reasons, hybrid educational programs offer the best of both worlds—the convenience and accessibility of rich online environments combined with on-the-ground classes that foster deeper engagement with faculty, fellow students, and hands-on projects. Such programs are the best fit for professionals who need to fit class time and assignments around their work and family life. Offering multiple start dates, part- or full-time enrollments, evening and weekend classes, and bootcamps opens these opportunities to a wider and more diverse audience.

For those unfamiliar with the corporate structure of today’s technology companies, cooperative education placements are precious in their ability to allow students to apply what they are learning, ask better questions, observe team and project workflow, and gain richer understanding of important research and development processes.

Mentors and guest lecturers from industry, on-the-job training, and class projects that address actual business problems are key to success. We can’t just focus on technical skills—knowledge work relies on strong soft skills like interpersonal communication and public speaking. There will be a premium on creativity, vision, innovation, and interdisciplinary reach. Lifelong learners with diverse real-world experience will be better poised to respond to changing paradigms and emerging technology.

The transition to a new jobs economy will be messy, but it will be much worse if we fail to proactively address skill shortages and job displacement. We’ll have to be willing to be creative about education and career paths, breaking the molds that no longer serve our purposes. Starting now and looking to the future, we have the opportunity to capitalize on our individual and collective potential in unprecedented ways.

About the Author:

PK Agarwal is the Regional Dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley. Agarwal served as the former CTO of the State of California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as the former CEO of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).

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