The Future of Education and Our Responsibility

A Perspective

Today, 29/5/2013, I read two articles, one in the New York Times (NYT) and the other in To Vima, that prompted me to write the following thoughts.

In 1991 I was surprised by an invitation of our local Public Radio station to participate in a round table discussion regarding technology innovations and how they will affect our lives.

When I arrived at the station, I was astonished when I realized that I was the only one representing Information Technology (IT) because they had said to me “technology innovations”. The rest of the participants were medical doctors, educators (University level), engineers, bioengineers, correspondences, etc. We were 16 all together.

My recollections of the highlights were that the average life expectancy, based on the research done at the time, by 2020 could reach 100 years and by 2035 to be 120 years. This, as you can imagine, made for a lively discussion. A funny comment was; how long will we be considered children?  A more serious question was; how long will we be working?

My contribution to the discussion was to express a thought I had for some time and which became very relevant after what I heard about life expectancy.

The thought was as a result of the continue education I had over the years and the fact that I changed a number of specialties within (IT). I came to believe that individuals in certain professions, especially those that evolve very fast, will have to change profession for the following three reasons:

One, unless they continue to evolve and keep up with their profession, by the age 40-45 their knowledge will be out of date.

Two, the profession may not exist after a period of time.

Three, they, themselves, may be burned-out due to the speed of their evolution that they may decide to change profession. 

Bringing together these two pieces of information, the life expectancy and my above described belief, my belief becomes very plausible based on the fact that a person, who lives to age 100, will work until age 80 or longer. I can even go further to suggest that some people may need to change profession two or three times.

If we accept the above as reasonable, then the society has two new issues.

One, the universities need to get ready to accept and teach older individuals. Will these people need to begin from the first year or at some other level? Do we have professors who can teach elder students who have knowledge and experience that a student at 18 does not have?

Two, how will society get ready to aid the family of the new “student” who may not be working while at school?

As individuals, when do we begin to prepare ourselves for the inevitable career change? Do we wait until our employer dismiss us, do we take the initiative and begin to attend school while at work or do we stop working to go to school full time?

I am of the opinion that the worst case scenario is that of the dismissal as it will have psychological impact on the individual.

These and other issues were discussed that night.

Will the lengthened life expectancy resolve the issue we face today with the retirement systems in the developed world? I fear not.

The problems the retirement systems have is that the population in the aging fast. By living longer and working longer, does provide a reprieve until the population reaches the new retirement age. At that point, unless in the main time we have made major reengineering in the retirement system, we will be facing the same issues we have today.

Fast forward to 1994. As I was getting up in age, over 39 at that time, and realizing that the corporate environment promoted youth, I felt that I was at a disadvantage. I had to do something to make management believe that I was so valuable that I was to be the last person they will lay off. It is commonly known as; “the person who will turn the lights out before he/she closes the door”. I then had to understand what was important to both IT and business management. As I was a technical person, I had a good understanding what IT management wanted. I had to learn in a hurry what business management wanted and how to talk in business terms. I felt that was my responsibility to reenergize my career. This may not be the only way, it was simply my way.

Fast forward to 2005 when the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman was published. A number of my friends, professors at the California Universities system, read the book and we had a discussion over libations. I described to them my above written thoughts. The reaction was startling. They got in a panic because the California University system does not allow one to take a second bachelor. In addition, they believed and made very clear that the university system was not ready to address an influx of thousands of new students and more specifically of mature individuals.

[I am positive that new technologies will allow us to address the influx of the new students. We already have videoconference on the PC, pad or even phone. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC model can and will be used for continue education for the masses. A variation of this can be used for a plethora of subjects so that one can study at her/his speed and eventually receive a degree.

These efforts will require additional staff and budgets. I am sure that those will be addressed as the society realizes the need at hand.]

Fast forward to 2013 and the two articles I read today.

The article in the NYT was an op-ed by Thomas Friedman by the title “How to Get a Job”. In this article Mr. Friedman discusses a new trend/paradigm in employment. The “education-to-work”, as he calls it. This new paradigm, and quotes the Harvard professor Tony Wagner, who says: “The world doesn’t care anymore what you know; all it cares is what you can do with what you know. And they increasingly don’t care how those skills were acquired: home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale”.

In a discussion he had with Eleonora Sharef, she says,” A degree document is no longer a proxy for the competency employers need”.

In addition, one needs to keep in mind that in the US, despite the high official unemployment level (7,5%). There are 600.000 unfilled manufacturing jobs because they cannot find workers with the needed skills.

Finally to the article in To Vima (translated from Greek) with the title “38% of employers struggles to find adequate personnel”.

“According to the research by ManpowerGroup while considering the high levels of unemployment, the specific percentage which is 14% up since last year and 3% above the world average,shows the continuing deficit in experience (60%), skills (25%) and available candidates (17%), that are characteristic of the greek jobs market, according to the employers”.

What the above indicate is that we are responsible for our work career(s). We need to look at the job market, the new technologies, and new opportunities.

Unless the system/society stops and takes stock, it will continue to educate students in the wrong subjects. This is a terrible waste of resources and disillusionment for the young people.

As the slogan of the United Negro College Fund reads: 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste'.