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Future proofing our students through education

We all know that technology is rapidly changing the world around us, and at an increasingly faster rate. We have seen that to be true in communication technology, medical science, transport, space exploration, manufacturing, earth sciences, computer science, physical science… the list goes on. AI and machine learning are rendering entire sectors of the labor market closed to humans. Helicopter parents across the world worry that they must find a way to “future proof” their children, and ensure they are not trained to do a job that a robot can ultimately steal.

Leaving aside the necessary debate that places the intrinsic value of education against the extrinsic requirement for skilled labor, if one is of the belief (and not everyone is) that education must be aligned with work, to the degree that as teachers our primary goal is to prepare students for their work in the future, then the shape and detail of that future is materially pertinent to how we teach today.

When I think of “Jobs in the Future” my mind races to the scientific: space nutritionists, nanorobotic engineers and AI designers. The truth, I’m afraid, is a lot more mundane. According to the US Department of Labor's estimates, just under 2 million new jobs will be created in the next ten years in the home care and health care sector. In fact personal care aides, registered nurses, home health aides, and medical assistants take up the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 9th spots respectively on the top ten fastest growing jobs list; with cooks, wait-staff and food preparation staff come in at 2nd and 10th with just under 1 million new jobs created in the fast food sector.

The future, it seems, is not so much filled with flying cars and pollution-eating nanorobots as with hordes of the tech-ladened, luxuriating in idleness who no longer want to cook or look after themselves and their families. Somehow I can’t imagine today’s new parents happily signing their child up for a K-12 syllabus rich in burger flipping and nursing.

So where is the middle-ground?

Future proofing our students through education

Future proofing our students through education

What do we know for sure about what the future will demand of our graduates?

To paraphrase Oprah, here are a couple of things that I “know for sure” about the future of work:

  • Robots and AI will never be able to do everything: From writing a beautiful song that reveals the depth of the human condition, to squeezing under the sink to fix a leaking faucet there are still a host of occupations that robots can’t do.
  • Economic progress is by nature destructive — yet it is creatively destructive: The destruction of jobs, companies and entire industries is required in order to issue in the new: “The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the pre-existing order.” So if the future is a cleaner, safer more equitable place as a result of cleaner, safer, more equitable tech — then perhaps some dirty industries (and sadly the humans that man them) must make way.
  • An education rich in technological understanding means more than learning how to code: In this fascinating article about the “myth of the skills gap” we learn, among other things, that while almost all future jobs will require technological understanding, the current obsession with coding may be directing our graduates down an unnecessarily challenging rabbit hole.
  • STEM may not save you: Controversial, I know! Simply put occupations that deal with human relationships and require empathy, interpersonal communication and negotiation such as psychologists, teachers, social workers, counselors and mental health workers will be safe from the robot revolution. Keen to find out how future proof your profession is? Try this app — great for writers, not so great for telemarketers!
  • Work need not be Income: Some people exclaim with glee “Let the robots have my job!” So many jobs are rote, unstimulating, repetitive and boring — in fact these are the jobs that are most likely to be filled by robots in future (think bookkeepers and bank tellers). Radical solutions to the subsequent unemployment conundrum include a universal basic minimum wage (mooted at $10, 000 p/year) that in an ideal world people would spend on entrepreneurial and creative projects of self-improvement and enrichment.

The future is not a terrain rational people want to be definitive about; however it behoves us to to cast our eye, every now and again, to the horizon to try and establish precisely where we are going. If you made it to the end of the blog without clicking a link, then I encourage you to at least watch this TEDx talk “Will automation take away all our jobs?” by economist David Autor, which is at once edifying and encouraging.

Feel free to tackle me about my future proofing opinions in the comment section below!

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