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Building Pathways, Skills for the Future

pablo (3)To many the United States is still enjoying the Industrial Age, a time that began as we entered the 19th century. As the country shifted from the agrarian age, we say the introduction of the steam engine, the iron industry, and other such developments that signaled the shift in our economy and our American workforce.

Some see the current age, as we shift from an industrial economy to a digital, information society as a move from that Industrial Age. But as Klaus Schwaub, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum has written, we are actually entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR. It is a time identified with robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and other advances that were considered part of the science fiction of the first through third Industrial Revolutions.

As we enter 4IR, one thing is clear. We need to prepare the students of both today and tomorrow in ways that were different from the past as we ready learners for the possibilities and the jobs of the future. When we moved from an agrarian to an industrial economy, we saw a major shift in education. In the U.S., the industrial age meant a free public education available to all students. It meant more and more individuals pursuing postsecondary education.   And it meant shifting from the skills needed for the farm to the skills needed for a factory.

While our economy has moved from the industrial era of the 19th or 20th centuries to the digital economy of today, our educational systems have failed to keep up. In public schools across the United States, we see students learning the same subjects pursued by their parents and grandparents. And we see systems struggling to identify the teachers and the methods to ensure that subjects like coding become mandatory for every future high school graduate.

It has only been recently that we have seen communities and school districts begin to truly focus on the impact of accelerating technological advancements on learning. Career and technical education (CTE) that once focused on engine repair and other industrial pursuits are now focused on robotics, 3D printing, and biotech. STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education has become a non-negotiable for all students, not just those seeking careers in medicine or the hard sciences.

These shifts have been largely driven by families and the learners themselves. As more and more high school students explore the full range of career opportunities available to them – jobs that their parents may not even be able to conceive – they are quickly seeing what skills, knowledge, and abilities they will need to pursue those careers. Yes, those learners are looking to two- and four-year colleges to help them in attaining that knowledge, but they are also looking to secondary schools to put them on the right paths.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Commerce Department released a report looking at the potential impact of self-driving vehicles. It found that roughly one in nine future workers will have their jobs directly impacted by self-driving vehicles. This is more than just the nearly 4 million individuals who currently drive taxis, trucks, and ambulances for a living. It is also the nearly 12 million police officers, real estate agents, home aides, and others who drive out of necessity to be able to do their jobs. All told, nearly 16 million jobs directly impacted by technology and AI advances in the coming years.

Why is this important? It is clear that we are at a time of transition, transition for both the economy and for education. Such a change means that institutions like our schools will remain rooted in the needs of the industrial age of the yesterday, while our learners are quickly turning their attentions to the possibilities of tomorrow. It thus demands resources that will help families navigate the education and career opportunities that may be available, while remaining fluent in both the past and the future.

The Student Research Foundation has been working with a wide range of partners – including the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America, America’s Promise Alliance, National Girls Collaborative Project, National Society of Black Engineers, and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning – to help families better chart those possibilities and help learners reach their goals and their dreams. And it is why we established the Research Consortium on Career Pathways and 21st Century Skills to gather valuable information on students’ perceptions on the importance of those skills.

This all remains a work in progress, though. With career pathways changing seemingly by the day, it is essential that we continue to gather research and collect data to connect student interests with career pathways. Each year, we study thousands of students in hundreds of secondary schools to gain better insights on aspirations in STEM, CTE, and other fields. It is with this data that millions of families a year are able to help lead educated discussions on the future and on what is possible.

Each school year, we ask more and more of our classroom teachers. They have evolved from instructors to instructors AND counselors, coaches, psychometricians, therapists, and community leaders. Now, we also look for them to successfully guide our students toward college and career goals.

That can’t be done, particularly in 4IR, without a strong wealth of research and student perception data, just the kind of information the Student Research Foundation and its partners capture and share each year. With each new school that participates in our surveys, for each student who shares their opinions, we gain one more data point that helps educate and lead other families with similar aspirations, goals, and dreams.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is an age driven by data and instantaneous information. We expect it from industry, and we will soon expect it from our educational institutions. Together, we must do everything we can to gather inputs from the future workforce to educate our employers and our schools to ensure the latter is prepared to meet the ever-changing needs of the former.