For over twenty years, I have participated in conversations about postsecondary education centered around institutions of higher education and the value they deliver to students (or not), the support services critical to the success of supporting student development, and policies that should be more inclusive of students of all ages. However, it was not until recently that my vernacular started to change. I no longer talk about students – I talk about learners. I no longer talk only about postsecondary education – but I talk about talent. And I have found that this simple shift in how I talk about the opportunities for academic success beyond high school are more relevant than ever.
At the same time as I started to shift the way I spoke about postsecondary education, I got to know Dr. Michelle Weise. Michelle was a member of the leadership team at Strada Education Network, a social impact organization dedicated to forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment. She served as Strada’s Chief Innovation Officer and led the Institute for the Future of Work. Many times, I sat in conference audiences as Michelle made presentations about the future of work and the skills and competencies future students needed and employers demanded. Oftentimes, she referred to the shift from student to learner and the necessary pivot that all of us in higher education should make to lifelong learning.
Late in 2020, Michelle authored, “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet,” and I read it in a weekend (so is the life of a higher education policy wonk!). Her outlook and call for reform in the way we approach the intersection of education and employment is one that anyone who is engaged in lifelong learning and the support of all learners should read. Michelle joined me for a conversation about her book – and explained why she is calling for a new way of approaching postsecondary education.
Alison Griffin: For decades, education leaders, policymakers and advocates have talked about “lifelong learning” and worked to create systems, practices and policies to support learning across a person’s lifetime. But your new book, “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet,” takes a little different approach. Tell me what “long life learning” means.
Michelle Weise: Long-life learning is about anticipating that we will all need to navigate a longer, more turbulent work life. If early baby boomers are already experiencing 12 job changes by the time they retire, we may have to prepare for 20 or 30 job transitions in the future. To stay competitive in the workforce, we’ll all need to think of ourselves as working learners, always flexing between working and learning or juggling both at the same time. So, the book is really my attempt to put the decades-old concept of lifelong learning into action by laying out how we can begin to invest in the on- and off-ramps we’ll all need to move more seamlessly in and out of learning and work.
Alison: As you conducted your research about the momentous changes needed in postsecondary education, what surprised you the most about the failings of current systems? What can schools—both K-12 and postsecondary education institutions—do to ensure learners are prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist?
Michelle: Because I worked with Clayton Christensen, the godfather of the theories of disruptive innovation, I haven’t been surprised by the inertia within higher education. The challenge of transforming from within to meet the present moment actually shows up in every single industry, not just education. Disruptive innovation has less to do with an unwillingness to change or a lack of awareness and more to do with the fact that business models cannot evolve easily, particularly in the face of rapid innovation. Disruption from within is inordinately difficult. Even in the business world, the companies that can claim victory are few and far between.
The real opportunity for educators is to push the boundaries of what is possible with the things that are in their control. There is great reinvention possible when it comes to moving away from content delivery to problem-based inquiry. We know that whenever humans solve any problem in the world, the solution is and will be, by nature, interdisciplinary. In order to cultivate more nimble thinkers for the future and prepare them to face the new, cross-functional jobs of tomorrow, teaching and learning must be problem-based. There are obviously some education institutions that are doing this, but it’s often within the confines of a course or a capstone project. And although some K–12 schools have picked up on problem-based learning more quickly than institutions of higher education, across the gamut of educational experiences, this approach is more the exception than the rule.
At the same time, we have to think about how to incorporate more inquiry-based models, not only for younger learners immersed in education full-time, but also for more mature working learners who need to stay ahead of the curve and build new and emerging skills that translate into intellectual agility and workplace dexterity. But what exactly will those educational experiences look like for older working learners? More problem-based learning pathways are needed for millions more Americans. The opportunity is there for the taking.
Alison: What are the skills that are necessary to adequately prepare learners for the jobs of the future?
Michelle: The most valuable workers now and in the future will be those who can combine the elements of what author David Epstein calls range: the ability to stretch across disciplines, engage in analogical thinking and apply knowledge from one context to another. At the same time, generalist or human skills are not enough. The skills needed for the jobs of the future will be hybrid. Employers will demand intellectual dexterity and technical expertise in equal measure, or human + technical skills: emotional intelligence + artificial intelligence; ethics + logic; or communication + programming. It’s not the “Tyranny of the OR,” as author Jim Collins describes it, but rather the “Genius of the AND.” All of us will need some domain knowledge to assess the work of machines. We’ll need enough technical skills to be dangerous and intervene at the right times. The balance is critical.
Alison: What role does industry—including employers of all sizes—play in ensuring learners will be prepared for the future of work? Do you have an example of a partnership between an educational institution and an industry that has created a seamless pathway for learners to move between learning and working?
Michelle: The companies that thrive in the future will be ones that begin to look within, cultivate their internal talent and provide opportunities within the flow of work to develop new skills for the jobs of the future. In our current models, employers tend to place most of the burden on employees to spend what little time they have away from work to pursue educational opportunities. Organizations often do not carve out time for reskilling or upskilling. The expectation is that workers will somehow stack more training on top of all of the other demands in their lives. Time is the biggest barrier—the biggest point of friction when it comes to talent development—so it is critical for leaders to integrate learning opportunities into the workday, so workers can continue to earn a living while building new skills.
This is where advancements in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and simulations show great promise. Companies like UPS, ExxonMobil, KFC and BP are starting to turn to AR and VR to train people in digital skills more rapidly and in real time. Digital skills, in particular, are a pain point for companies because tens of millions of Americans have limited to no such skills. Walmart launched Walmart Academies to train 6,000 to 8,000 associates per week. At all 5,000 of its retail stores, workers engage in three- to five-minute modules on VR headsets and then immediately practice those skills on the sales floor. In simplest terms, we must stop thinking of learning and work as separate activities, as if the workplace and the classroom are two distinct virtual or physical spaces. Instead, companies must adopt a whole new mindset: The workplace must become the classroom of the future. It’s time to reimagine on-the-job training as a way for workers to build new skills for emerging and better jobs.
Alison: If you were giving advice to a middle school student about their long-life learning pathway, what advice would you share? Similarly, what advice would you give their parents? Their guidance counselor?
Michelle: It’s a real shift in our minds to move away from thinking about our old model of education, work and then retirement. But the future of work is long and uncertain, and you must be prepared for continuous returns to learning. Education will not be a one-and-done experience mostly completed in your first 25 years of life.
In this new learn-earn-learn cycle, you’re going to have a multitude of options, and unfortunately, at the moment, a lot of it is up to you to navigate on your own while institutions and employers work to catch up to the moment. We’ll get there, but it’s going to take time.
All of this means we have to be more involved as consumers of education. And in order to make sense of the more than 738,000 unique credentials that have flooded the market and the more than 4,300 colleges and universities, the new consumers of education have to ask tougher questions to ensure that you’re ready for the future of work. Whether it’s a degree program at a college or a bootcamp or an on-ramp program, you should look to providers that are transparent about the outcomes of their participants: Where do graduates land? What kind of jobs do they attain? What kind of debt load do they have when they leave, and are they able to actually pay it back? What do their underemployment rates look like—meaning, are their grads in jobs that don’t require college degrees?
Moreover, learning providers should make it clear to you how they approach problem-based learning, real-world problem solving and interdisciplinary learning. Be sure they’re not just talking about cross-listing courses but also demonstrating real ways in which they are breaking down structures to facilitate learning across domains.
Finally, does the learning provider offer work-based learning opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships, or co-ops? How does the program help you translate your skills into the language of the labor market? And how do employers know how to make sense of or validate your skills? These are all critical questions to ask if learners and families want to be savvier shoppers of education.
Alison: How can college and university trustees and regents best support the long-life learning approach? What fundamental changes need to be made in the way our postsecondary institutions are governed that can lead to a shift in approach—and even investment?
Michelle: Faced with the question of whether to “buy or build,” the reflex of universities is often to build. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with online education, this has led to a lot of reinvention of the wheel. As someone who’s been in this innovation and tech space for a while, I find it almost painful to see the duplication of efforts as entrepreneurs and organizations build out their ideas.
Trustees and regents can help schools probe and evaluate potential partnership models, especially as many schools try to pivot to the growing population of working learners. The demographics of college-going students have really been shifting over the last few decades. It’s almost too obvious how we need to redesign solutions around a very different kind of older learner (especially when the current population of 18- to 24-year-olds is shrinking), but schools have not truly transformed their offerings to cater to learners who have a lot of “life” that gets in the way and are seeking affordable and flexible learning pathways.
In the book, I highlight various on-ramps that provide short-burst human + technical skills-building pathways for adults with only a high school diploma. Many of these innovative programs rely heavily on philanthropic grants and government resources, but they have proved out their models with demonstrable and heartening outcomes. The opportunity is clear for universities to partner with these groups, leverage those learnings and figure out more sustainable business models to engage with adult learners differently than before and offer more convenient, targeted and personalized pathways.
Alison: As you think about bright spots in our current systems and structures, what gives you hope for long-life learners?
Michelle: I am very hopeful about the future, and a lot of that positivity stems from the incredible seeds of innovation that I see burgeoning all around us. Throughout the book, I point to a great many of these solutions that offer better career navigation, ways to fund long-life learning, more flexible and precise learning pathways, and fairer and more transparent hiring practices. Each of those innovations is emblematic of the kinds of building blocks we need to see more of in a better-functioning learning ecosystem.
The other piece of this is that long-life learning isn’t about education for “those people over there.” The future of workers is about us. We are the ones who will be affected, and so we must get to the business of building the infrastructure for us to harness the power of education over and over again throughout a longer work life.