Shifting world, economy requires educational adaptation

Executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board Ted Abernathy stressed that the only constant is change during his 2013 plenary session, “Higher Education: The Engine of Economic Growth and Competitiveness.”

Citing quotations from the 1950s and 1980s, Abernathy noted that, although current workforce concerns are not new, changing and accumulating factors now make Americans question “many of the things we used to know we knew.” Changes in the economy, competition, location, national workforce, talent demands, life cycles, tools, customer expectations and even the pace of change have all played a role in the sense of uncertainty surrounding higher education’s goals.

Increasing global interdependence plays a particularly important role in today’s job market. “We are two billion jobs short in a world that’s equalizing its competition,” Abernathy said, remarking that, in a world where Greece’s economic issues affect the United States stock market, America’s unemployment rate no longer stands alone. “We are competing with everyone from everywhere for everything.”

Abernathy identified several key changes in today’s economy, including the shift from rural regions to urban centers as companies become metropolitan-based, the increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship and rise of sole proprietorships, and ever-advancing technological innovations. “As routine work is outsourced and replaced by machines, people will need more creativity and skills to compete in the marketplace. The places where we’re growing tend to be the jobs that robots can’t do,” he said, citing home health aides and teacher’s assistants as two of the occupations projected to increase within the next decade.

He also noted that while men are losing jobs, projected growth in fields including health care, administrative support and sales indicates that women’s job prospects are improving, since the skill sets critical to those occupations are traditionally considered “feminine.” Unfortunately, many of these jobs tend to be low-paying; Abernathy estimated that the majority of jobs added to the economy during the next ten years will earn an annual salary of less than $35,000.

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In order to attain a competitive edge in this new economy, Abernathy suggested that communities need to collaborate with educators and businesses. “It’s re-invention time. We have to strengthen the connection between education and job skills. Success requires a systems approach.” By creating continuity in education and workforce development from early childhood onward, these leadership teams will prepare students to meet the changing demands of today’s economy.

“We’re shortchanging students and businesses if we promote four-year colleges as the only path to success,” Abernathy remarked. “We have to rethink credentials and their value in the workplace. Some businesses would rather have an employee who is certified in X than an employee with a bachelor’s degree in Y.”

abernathy-graph2He also noted that today’s students need earlier, more frequent exposure to the workforce, personalized experiences with technology, and education in soft skills, particularly adaptability. Abernathy recommended that teams specifically target college drop-outs, dislocated workers and disconnected youth to improve each cohort’s chances of economic success.

Citing the Greek proverb,  “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in,” he concluded by sagely recommending foresight when planning ways to fill current educational and economic gaps. “Your decisions are more important than next week or next month. These decisions will set Kentucky’s course for the next 50 years.”