Of Robots, Jobs, and #CareerTechEd

Are robots coming for our jobs? Recently, more and more media reports are highlighting how jobs from retail cashiers to radiologists may soon be taken over by robots, while noting that college degrees and careers in music, watch repair, or midwifery may be the best bets for ensuring that today’s young people have dependable careers in the future.

For decades now, we have lamented the shift from the industrial age to the digital one. Experts talked about the loss of factory jobs and the need for postsecondary educations for all who look to contribute to the economy. Some forecasts of the future have been incredibly accurate; others have painted a future that only seems to exist in science fiction movies.

That digital age is now. As media rightly note, we are entering a time that will be built on the foundations of robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and other advances that until recently were only considered part of that same science fiction. The shift does mean that robots will be part of the workplace far more than ever before. But instead of planning for a technological overtaking, our educational institutions have a real opportunity to ensure that today’s learners are the ones creating, building, programming, and overseeing those robots.

The impending age makes clear that we need to prepare the students of both today and tomorrow in ways that were different from the past as we ready learners for the possibilities and the jobs of the future. For some, it may mean the traditional college degrees so many call for, while others may find the same teachings in a range of postsecondary offerings, including career certificates. Regardless, it will mean that all learners will need problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt to changing technology, whether they are computer engineers or nurse midwives. 

We have witnessed Congress reauthorize the Perkins Act and the White House establish a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. A wide range of media outlets have explored the growing importance of career and technical education and how future careers can be obtained through apprenticeships, internships, and work study. In doing so, we acknowledge that while the economy and job possibilities continue to evolve, how we provide learners with the skills and knowledge they may need for those careers also must change and evolve for the times.

We now see communities and school districts truly focusing on the impact of accelerating technological advancements on learning. CTE that once focused on engine repair and other industrial pursuits are now focused in the robotics, 3D printing, and biotech that some are starting to fear. STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education has become a non-negotiable for all students, not just those seeking careers in medicine or the hard sciences and not just for those seeking university degrees. 

Yes, these changes are driven by policy changes and economic forecasting. But they are also driven by families and the learners themselves. As more and more high school students explore the full range of career opportunities available to them – jobs that their parents may not even be able to conceive – they are quickly seeing what skills, knowledge, and abilities they will need to pursue those careers. Yes, those learners are looking to two- and four-year colleges to help them in attaining that knowledge, but they are also looking to secondary schools to put them on the right paths.

We achieve this by building the right systems for tomorrow’s industry leaders to thrive today. That means high school classes that equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge. It means postsecondary opportunities relevant and interesting to the leaders of tomorrow. And it means clubs, student organizations, honor societies, and internship programs that support this K-12 and postsecondary development.

We need not fear the robots, nor should we. At this time of economic transition, we need to work together – industry and educational institutions, educators and learners – to embrace the future and ensure that our educational offerings match both future career pipelines and current student interests and passions. And where there is a disconnect, we must work together to better connect those interests with the opportunities of tomorrow.

(The above essay also appears on LinkedIn Pulse.)

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