At a Stanford symposium, experts discuss shifting education expectations, technology’s impact, and new worker demands.
By Louise Lee
In the future, a traditional college degree will remain useful to build fundamental skills, but after graduation, workers will be expected to continue their education throughout their careers.
Workers, for instance, may increasingly pursue specific job-oriented qualifications or applied credentials in incremental steps in flexible, lower-cost programs, says Jeff Maggioncalda, chief executive of online learning company Coursera.
Maggioncalda, who received his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1996, spoke at “The Future of Work,” an all-day symposium held at Stanford’s Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center on August 30.
Speakers explored the changing workplace, new possibilities for higher education, and technology’s impact on careers and industries.
Embracing the Liberal Arts
Students are hesitating to major in the humanities and social sciences out of fear that those degrees will lead only to low-wage jobs, says Harry Elam, Jr.., Stanford’s senior vice provost for education. Yet those fields remain crucially important to industry, which needs liberal arts students for countless tasks, such as to help understand biases in data, facilitate collaboration, bring insight, provide historical perspective, and “humanize technology in a data-driven world,” he says.
For instance, machines should not only function but should also optimize human welfare. What if a self-driving car needs to go faster than the speed limit to avoid an accident? Should that car be allowed to break the law? These kinds of questions of the new digital economy “all require diversity of thought, diversity of approach, and diversity of background to address these complex issues,” Elam says.Those who major in the humanities or social sciences, especially fields like philosophy and public policy, can easily develop transferable skills that employers value, says Trent Hazy, a current student at Stanford GSB and co-founder of MindSumo, a firm that connects college students with employers by inviting students to submit solutions to challenges that companies post online.
Because many employers seek candidates comfortable with data and data analysis, humanities majors who also learn some quantitative skills by taking classes in, say, statistics or logic will have an advantage over those who don’t, says Hazy.
Learning Throughout Life
Speakers generally agreed that the traditional brick-and-mortar college campus will certainly remain because the face-to-face encounters in and outside the classroom are educationally and socially valuable. After graduation, though, employees will increasingly need continuing education to stay competitive, and companies recognize that, says Julia Stiglitz, vice-president at Coursera who earned her Stanford MBA in 2010. Already, some large firms such as AT&T use online learning in a “massive reskilling effort” to re-train workers. “There are all of these educational opportunities that are open to anyone who has the will and desire and ability to go through it, and as a result I think we’re going to see all sorts of new people come into fields they otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” she says.Anant Agarwal, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chief executive of online learning firm edX, adds that workers may think of continual training and education through online classes as earning “micro-credentials” that could garner credit toward a full degree at a traditional institution. Individuals could earn multiple micro-credentials over years, perhaps beginning even with a “micro-bachelor’s” in high school as a head start on an undergraduate degree, he says.Michael Moe, co-founder of GSV Asset Management, notes that over the course of their careers, people will augment “the three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic that they learned early in life with “the four C’s” of critical thinking, communication, creativity, and cultural fluency.
Restructuring Roles and Workweeks
Research suggests that by 2030, about half of today’s jobs will be gone. Speakers agreed that automation will perform many current blue-collar and white-collar jobs, while independent contractors will fill a large fraction of future positions. Robots and other automation in the short term will displace individual workers, but technology over the long term is likely to create new economic opportunity and new jobs. “While automation eats jobs, it doesn’t eat work,” says Moe.Future workers’ attitudes toward employment will be different from those of today’s workers, forcing companies to change how they recruit and retain. In a survey of college students, respondents indicated that they highly value work-life balance and are interested in working from home one or two days a week, says Roberto Angulo, chief executive of AfterCollege, a career network for college students and recent graduates. “Students are switching from living for their work and shifting more toward making a living so they can actually enjoy life,” he says.Other shifts in demographics will force employers to rethink how they structure work and benefits. Many aging “baby boomers,” for instance, are remaining in the workforce past the traditional retirement age of 65 and may demand fewer hours or shorter workweeks. “There are different things people value at different ages,” says Guy Berger, economist at LinkedIn.
Aiming for Equity
Companies are committing to a diverse workforce for varying motivations. Some believe that diverse teams are just “smarter and more creative,” says Joelle Emerson, adjunct lecturer at Stanford GSB and founder and chief executive of diversity strategy firm Paradigm. Other firms, especially technology companies, believe that they’re disproportionately responsible for designing the future and therefore it’s simply wrong to leave entire communities out of their teams, Emerson says.Overall, Emerson adds, companies must understand that the same strategies that increase diversity also boost a range of other positive outcomes as well. For instance, “When people feel like they belong at work, they perform significantly better,” she says. They take fewer sick days and less time off.Speakers cited various initiatives designed to increase inclusion, such as reacHire, which trains and supports women re-entering the workforce, and Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, which brings individuals with 20 to 30 years of career experience to campus for a year of “intergenerational connection” and learning with undergrads and graduate students. “There are so many people who are not 18- to 22-year-olds who are still interested in being alive, alert, connected, and contributing,” says Kathryn Gillam, the institute’s executive director.“Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice, equity is a goal,” says Dereca Blackmon, Stanford associate dean and director of the Diversity and First Generation Office.