How to educate the next workforce

This article is part of the New New Rules of Business.


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The Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and other leaders from across industries, gathered on June 30 to share their reflections on recent trends and events. Like other leaders in this current moment, they are grappling with a global pandemic, outcry over social injustice, and a volatile economy.

In this roundtable discussion led by editorial director Jill Bernstein, top executives discussed Educating the Next Workforce. Participants were (in alphabetical order) Ana Bakshi, director of the Oxford Foundry at the University of Oxford; Rachel Carlson, CEO and cofounder of Guild Education; Abby Falik, CEO and founder of Global Citizen Year; Laura Ipsen, CEO of Ellucian; Tom Kolditz, director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University; Brian McCarthy, partner at McKinsey & Company; Alexandra Stanton, CEO of Empire Global Ventures; and Steven Wolfe Pereira, CEO of Encantos. Excerpts of the roundtable have been edited for length and clarity.

Steven Wolfe Pereira: [This is about] a shift from “education,” and the focus on standardization and testing, to a focus on “learning.” If this is going to be the AI [artificial intelligence] era, and we know anything that can be automated will be, what are the fundamental 21st-century skills that [you need] no matter where you are on the lifelong-learner spectrum? We fundamentally need to rethink the skills that are being taught at every stage.

Laura Ipsen: I worry about the underserved and disadvantaged [students] who get set back, because of COVID in particular. My hope is that if we had a more agile, innovative way of education, where all the dots were connected, that we wouldn’t lose as many people, and there would be more opportunities. I think technology can solve for some of that, but it’s really the curiosity and the human part of education that we need more focus on.

We know how to digitize and create technologies for just about everything. Most institutions did an amazing job of getting students online; the places that they were struggling, it wasn’t the technology. [The question is] how do we get creative with the creative topics, and make sure that we keep education diverse and engaging for everyone?

Abby Falik: The future of school looks nothing like school right now. We need to totally reinvent what we mean by education. And it has to be reoriented around the things that young people most need to learn, which are the things that are distinctively human, the things that AI and robots are never going to do. I have some concern that if left to its own devices, the market will solve for this in a way that looks like developing hard skills that are easily measured and have a high ROI, and employers saying that this is specifically and concretely what they need. I want to advocate for radically new pathways that may not meet the market demand quite as squarely, but are really about the externalities of an education, and have to do with civic engagement, adaptability, creativity, a social-impact orientation. These are things that you can’t learn in a classroom, you only learn through lived experience.

Ana Bakshi: In 5 years or in 10 years [some jobs] are no longer going to exist anymore. So what role can universities actually play now by way of working with the labor market to combat mass unemployment? Universities are the only actual homes to multidisciplinary networks. What we’ve been doing is really embedding lifelong skills into curriculum. So if somebody is doing a physics degree, they’re doing a practical course complementary to it on entrepreneurship, technology, and leadership skills.

Rachel Carlson: I’m hearing a lot of what we’re hearing in talking to universities and employers, which is the importance of democratizing education and digitizing education and unbundling education. But an important thing we need to make sure we do alongside all of that is not repeat the mistakes of the last recession. In 2009, higher ed was consumed at a higher rate than any other point in American history, arguably world history.

But while we quite democratized it, we gave no indication of quality and of ROI to our students. The colossal student debt we’ve been talking about for the last 10 years was in large part [created] because we handed out huge subsidized loans and unleashed folks into master’s degree programs that were democratized in choice, but were not regulated in a way that created accountability.

Tom Kolditz: We’ve built an executive-quality leader development enterprise here [at Rice University]. We’ve offered a professional leadership coach from the Houston business community to every student in the school who wants it, free of charge. At the same time, we’re working with the Carnegie Foundation to be the executors of a classification in leadership education for 4,500 schools in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. So if you are a disruptor, which is what we consider ourselves to be, and you understand how educational institutions are governed, you can play a big role in the success of getting this stuff done. [After George Floyd’s death] we reached out to 40 black activists at Rice and offered them professional coaches so that their activism could be energized and successful, as opposed to what ordinarily happens, which is a fair amount of disruption from the activism, but then no lasting change.

Brian McCarthy: We do problem-solving, and when interdisciplinary teams come together, ideally diverse interdisciplinary teams, we get the best results. Yet when you look at our education system, it’s not diverse. Girls Who Code is there for a reason, because girls don’t necessarily take that tech type of path.

Alexandra Stanton: How do you get comfy in the not knowing? [In the work I do] there is no truth with a capital T. There is no one right answer. I don’t want to romanticize failure, because that bugs the heck out of me, but I think it’s important to get comfy with the not knowing, the mushing around in that morass of not having something that wraps up easily in 10 seconds on Snapchat or X number of words on Twitter. Intellectual patience for me is something that I think I worry about a lot in future education.

Read more insights on the New New Rules of Business from Fast Company’s Impact Council members here:

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