President Obama's dinner with the elite of Silicon Valley and ultra exclusive San Francisco tech fundraiser were well covered without any details leaking about the discussions. While not quite as attention grabbing, I recently had the opportunity to have dinner with a number of CEOs and founders of leading Silicon Valley startups. The room had created thousands of new jobs over the past year and yet my table was actively debating the real impact technology advancement will have on the domestic job market. Would the next wave of technology advances actually help, or just make us so efficient that we needed less and less skilled laborers to support a growing collection of "offshore" work? What could cause us to go down one path vs. the other?
It's a timely discussion that is drawing varied interest and analysis. Recently Paul Krugman penned a piece, "Education's not the answer, after all" where he takes the position that university education isn't the answer because technology has taken away many of the skilled jobs that were once necessary. He provides examples like legal research where computers that can quickly analyze millions of pages of documents that were once the domain of paralegals or even junior lawyers. Even people as diverse as Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal and early Facebook investor) and Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) have called out the inability of universities to prepare students for our dynamic new world.
Historically, education has been examined by metrics such as high school graduation rates or college enrollment and completion. This development of "general human capital" -- skills like literacy that are useful to all employers -- has been the core focus of educational initiatives. "Specific human capital" or development of industry-specific skills have been deemed risky as they aren't easily transferable.
Yet while the Internet and information age have been reinventing our whole lives, educational models feel the same as those that groomed previous generations. Sure, kids work more hours, and certain private sector initiatives are rising, but the core model and approach is eerily similar to the prehistoric information-limited world we grew up with.
This presents a challenge, because education can only save us from innovation-driven job loss like Krugman describes if it catches up to the pace of life/work and drivers of economic growth for the next millenium. In a future where workers will be expected to reinvent themselves several times in their careers -- "core" education cannot rely on just the development of yesterday's general human capital. Taking advantage of new world order to drive broad economic benefit will ask more people to be ready to learn for life.
Innovation, Jobs and Education -- No Longer in Balance
It has been long accepted that productivity improves economic growth, and technology innovation is one of the biggest creators of that productivity. But recently the increasing amount of software to drive that productivity has given rise to the idea that the next generation of advances will lead to a world of haves and have-nots. We could come to a world where a few highly skilled people leverage technology to drive the work of many global commodity workers -- driving down U.S. wages for those roles and turning traditionally white collar jobs blue.
Any leap forward in innovation disrupts existing industries -- telegrams to telephones, fax to email, closed systems to the Internet. We are seeing a similar state of disruption with cloud computing and new collaboration technologies. However, for the first time, these tools enable a virtual worldwide labor pool that operates almost as effectively as a co-located workforce. This increases the potential for a decline in wages towards a global average.
The pace and degree of disruption can make the winds of change feel like a gale, but it is the choices that companies and countries make in enabling their people which will determine whether this next generation of innovation is a jetstream to progress or the headwind to a slow down.
Innovation in Education, Prevents Innovation Driven Job Loss
Government education investment has historically focused exclusively on subsidizing general human capital development through basic education. Adult education, new job training and career re-invention has been mostly left to private sector or companies themselves. Yet because of the increasing rate of change and importance in this type of education, there is a substantive gap in our current systems and the emerging needs. Also, because employees move so easily between companies, it makes individual firms less willing to invest in developing new skills -- a problem that is leading to shortages in areas like nursing.
The portfolio of education must broaden the types of programs and at what stage of life they apply. While obvious to those living in states that have seen staple blue collar jobs move overseas, we've seen only cursory measures to reskill them. Few expected that midway through their careers they would have to start again, just as they did after high school or college. Yet, in the future it is certain that many will need dramatic job training, perhaps even the equivalent of two or four year "degree" programs as they pursue a second career in their forties.
While government is not the sole solution to this, its acknowledgement of the need, its direct or supportive actions, and openness to experiment with new models are needed to create capacity for long term human capital. The biggest impact our educational system can have on our learning is to create an appetite and expectation that education is a lifelong pursuit. To do that it has to pull away from the inertia of the past and be open to a new world of ideas that should be experimented, evaluated and scaled where effective.
The breadth of what education is can feel overwhelming, but the simple answer is that we need to invest more and invest differently in the future through our children and in our present to help our current workforce evolve towards that future. Ultimately we need to create an environment where we collectively internalize the inevitability of change. It will allow our leaders, entrepreneurs, and each person to help craft an economy whose productivity is driven by a dynamic and adaptable workforce that uses change to constantly stay ahead. In the words of a lifetime inventor Benjamin Franklin, ""When you're finished changing, you're finished."