Alliances, Ambiguity, Appetizers: Jeff Selingo Forecasts Future Workforce Needs

Alliances, Ambiguity, Appetizers: Jeff Selingo Forecasts Future Workforce Needs

Jeff Selingo shares insights on how changes in higher ed, both in business schools and generally, can open the door to preparing to meet the needs of tomorrow's workforce.

At September’s Annual Accreditation Conference held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bestselling author and higher education thought leader Jeff Selingo presented on “2027: The Decade Ahead for Higher Education.” He discussed how the workforce was changing in response to a shifting global economy and to technological innovations, and how higher education in turn needs to shift to better serve this new work landscape. We followed up with Selingo to gain some deeper insights into how the changes in higher education generally, and business schools in particular, can facilitate to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce.

You’ve referred to the current era of higher education as the “Collaboration Era.” Can you elaborate on what that means? How can business schools best take advantage of that trait in preparing students for the workforce?

Collaboration is nothing new in higher education. But most alliances among institutions have been forged because of geography, mission, or for athletics. Now a new and potentially more dynamic version of partnerships is emerging that has the opportunity to forge deeper alliances among institutions and remake higher education for the demands of the 21st century. The seeds of these new alliances are planted in a common set of problems that multiple campuses need to solve but cannot do on their own because of their size or lack of financial resources. Advances in technology can now link together institutions that are separated by thousands of miles. Under the alliance model, groups of colleges could align their course offerings each term, for example, just as airlines sync their schedules each travel season, so that not every institution in the network would need to offer courses that only a few students on each campus might need to complete a degree.

No one approach defines this new type of alliance. A variety of strategies could be employed by institutions looking to build networks. They could be formed to tackle a discrete problem (e.g., anti-discrimination policy), a multitude of issues on several fronts (e.g., lack of enrollment for critical languages, skyrocketing acquisition costs in the library, and a need to improve career services), or the alliance could be a model of deep inter-institutional cooperation. The size and scope of the alliances will depend on the problems they seek to tackle and the willingness of the institutions to navigate the ambiguity that comes with any new partnership.

There are many reasons to fear automation and artificial intelligence—job redundancy, loss of skills and knowledge—but what are some reasons both business educators and businesses should embrace these technologies?

New technology has always brought with it new opportunities, new industries, and thus, new occupations and jobs. The future workforce demands that higher education begin to rethink the historical purpose of the college degree—especially the appropriate mix between theory and practice and how credentials communicate what students know to the wider world. Perhaps the most important skill business schools can provide to individuals in the 21st century is one that will likely never show up in any job advertisement: the ability to navigate ambiguity. Curiosity, resilience, entrepreneurship are necessary attributes in a dynamic job market where individuals will increasingly advance between occupations and industries many times throughout life. These are the attributes that will allow them to have greater control over their own destiny in an economy with so many unknowns.

So-called soft skills like communication, writing, and critical thinking continue to be the top skills employers across many industries seek, which could be an indication that they are not only needed but lacking in the workplace. Why do you think there has been a drop-off in these types of skills in today’s higher ed graduates?

These skills should be called the hard skills because they are difficult to teach. Employers once believed soft skills were embedded in a college degree. It’s one reason there has been “credential creep” in most occupations—positions that didn’t ask for a college degree 20 years ago now do. Employers use the degree as a sorting mechanism in the hiring process. But now employers are less sure that the college degree is the strongest signal that applicants are armed with soft skills. It’s why employers now specifically ask for soft skills in job advertisements. Too many students treat college as a spectator sport, waiting for it to happen to them. They sit back and wait for professors to deliver lessons in the classroom. They participate in campus life but too often from the sidelines, so they lack any deep engagement in activities. They fail to cultivate relationships with professors or staff on campus who might lend advice and act as mentors. No wonder they are unprepared for the rigors of the workplace. A lot of what college and professional schools come down to is not what happens in the classroom; it’s about navigating life and building relationships.

How can higher education institutions, or business schools in particular, accommodate the craving for continuous learning outside of the traditional degree model? Are MOOCs, badges, technical programs, and nanodegrees the answer? Are these ways of communicating learning valued by employers?

We need more than the current lineup of credentials to measure and signify learning. Microcredentials—badges, nanodegrees, or MicroMasters—offer the opportunity to create more efficient packages that certify learning and can more appropriately react to the dynamism of the job market. Take a popular new degree program: data science. Data science jobs have quadrupled in the last five years, while the number of those positions specifically requesting data-visualization skills have grown six times as fast. In other words, even the most nimble of universities can’t create full-fledged degree programs flexible enough to keep up with the changing needs of some professions.

Is there anything higher education institutions can learn from technical trade programs that leave students with specialized skills and less debt, but perhaps also less opportunity for upward job mobility?

In an era where we need to sustain our learning for a lifetime, most degree programs, particularly at the graduate and professional level, give us too much. They offer an entire meal—12 months, 18 months, 24 months of courses—when all students might need is an appetizer or an entrée—one or two courses at a time, because students know they will need to return in a few years to keep up or get ahead in their careers. It’s no surprise that one place where enrollment is growing is in short-term certificates.

Jeff Selingo is a contributor to the Washington Post and author of the New York Times best-selling books College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, and  There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter @jselingo.