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3 graphs that explain how higher ed needs to design for the future of work

The “Bring back the jobs” trade agreement trash talking from the presidential campaign understates the bigger dramatic trend in the workplace: automation. Technology is causing once-in-a-century hyper shift in “jobs to be done” in the workforce for which higher education is not meeting the preparation needs. Much of the disconnect is just lag time, but some of it is our failure to paint the new picture of opportunity, whether for traditional college students choosing majors or retooling factory workers in Pennsylvania. We thought we would end the year in pictures, however wonky, to see what we can learn from workforce trends both on the supply side looking at workers’ interests and the demand side of needs changing needs of employers. These are very “big picture,” but provide some insights as we design education toward the future of work.


1. Job hopping will become the new norm

Future of work: Average duration of first job out of college
Figure 1: Average duration of first job out of college

How the landscape will change
Millennials spend an average of 2 years in a job, meaning they will likely hold 15-20 different jobs over the course of their working lives. Jeanne Meister, who helps companies re-imagine themselves for the 2020 workplace, argues that millennials perceive job-hopping as a good thing that “lead[s] to great job fulfillment” and that “can speed career advancement.” Figure 1 illustrates this environment, where most (80%+) hold their first job after college for less than a year.

What this means for higher ed
While connecting soon-to-be grads with jobs will remain important, schools can grow to become career resources for alumni, maintaining their value for students as they are likely to job hop from one job to the next within a year of graduating. This holds particular promise for CBE-based and online-accessible programs, where graduates can easily return for skill-specific development without needing to commit to degree programs.

2. Most jobs will require post-secondary education—and this trend is true for red states and blue states

Future of work: States by percentage of jobs requiring a college degree in 2020
Figure 2: States by percentage of jobs requiring a college degree in 2020

How the landscape will change
One of the narratives that emerged from post-election analysis is that Donald Trump won due to frustration from rural voters without a college education. This counter-narrative throws cold-water on the notion that is a further demonstrated by Figure 2, showing states by percentage of jobs requiring a college degree by 2020.

What this means for higher ed
The lack of congruency between the politics of a state (in terms of the 2016 presidential election) and the education attainment requirements for jobs of a state suggests that higher ed is not a political fault line in this country. There are deep-red states with high educational attainment needs (Nebraska), and deep-blue states with high educational attainment needs (Massachusetts); there are deep-red states with relatively lower needs (Oklahoma), and vice versa (Delaware). Institutions can leverage this apolitical status to reinvigorate state investment to pre-recession levels, tying their value to job expectations heading into 2020.

3. Job types are either very susceptible or fairly immune to computerization—with little middle ground

Future of work: The distribution of occupational employment of computerization.
Figure 3: The distribution of occupational employment of computerization.

How the landscape will change
While economic fears of the 1990s were framed by “globalization”, the conversation lately has been taking a turn towards automation as the greater force behind unemployment. In other words, the “foreign workers” who are more and more US jobs are robots, and undoing trade deals doesn’t address robots. Yet, as with most trends, this phenomenon is not ubiquitous to all industries. Figure 3 is not pretty; but what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for in telling perhaps the most important story for the future of higher ed.

What this means for higher ed
First the good news: all that pale green on the left means that higher ed itself is not at a high risk for automation. (Of course, automation has sped up since this graph was produced in 2010, but we can consider it directionally helpful.) As for how we offer education and  training, the big message is churn; many job holders will need to retool as their roles become outdated. Jobs with more highly specialized professional and terminal degree requirements (education, law, health care) are more protected against computerization. While many of the jobs at risk of computerization also have educational attainment expectations (such as repair, administration, sales), these tend to be tied to shorter programs (such as certificates). If higher ed wants to stay ahead of this curve, it should grow its access and opportunities specifically to help at-risk job holders retool early and often. Even for those in safer fields, the rate of change has created very complex environments in most fields, so teaching range of motion and creative problem solving has been cited in IBM’s global CEO survey as the biggest capacity need going forward.