Future of Work: The Evolution of Education & Training

America’s education and skills-development system must change in order to meet the needs of our future economy and workforce. But can it?

That was the question posed by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in a survey sent to 8,000 decision-makers, educators, technologists, and strategic thinkers in the summer of 2016.

This important question isn’t just tied to how education and training providers operate, what they teach, and who they serve. It has broad implications on the role that work plays in our society – the limits of automation, the relationship of employers to employees, and how financial security-related benefits such as health care and retirement are provided in our system.

Pew and Elon asked the following question in their nonscientific survey: “In the next 10 years, do you think we will see the emergence of new education and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future?” Participants were also given a number of prompts to consider in explaining their answers, including:

  • What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the workforce of the future?
  • Which of these skills can be taught effectively in nontraditional settings?
  • Which skills will be most difficult to teach at scale?
  • Will employers accept credentials from innovative programs in the same way as those from traditional programs?

The report on their findings includes the individual responses of many of the survey participants – and these personal insights and perspectives are fascinating reading. For example, one respondent suggested, “We will definitely see a vast increase in educational and training programs. We will also see what might be called on-demand or on-the-job kind of training programs. (We kind of have to, as with continued automation, we will need to retrain a large portion of the workforce.) I believe employers will subscribe to this idea wholeheartedly.”

Another respondent was more bluntly pessimistic, stating “Seriously? You’re asking about the workforce of the future? As if there’s going to be one?”

On a broader level, of the 1,408 responses received, about 70 percent said yes, such education and training programs and systems will develop and be successful. But almost one third – 30 percent – said no, they do not believe an evolution in education and training will be rapid enough, or at the scale necessary, to meet future needs.

From these responses, the researchers identified five major themes about the future of education and job training. They characterize three as “hopeful” and two as “concerns”:

Hopeful themes:

Theme 1:The training ecosystem will evolve, with a mix of innovation in all education formats.” Along with more traditional institution-based settings that will continue to play an important role in preparing people for life, emerging learning platforms will include more online, augmented reality and virtual reality opportunities. Some will be self-directed or self-taught, and some will be offered or required by employers.

Theme 2: Learners must cultivate 21st-century skills, capabilities and attributes.” With the rise of automation and other technological advances, intangibles such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking will be most highly valued – the skills that artificial intelligence and machines seem unable to replicate. Practical, experiential learning (for example, apprenticeships and mentoring) will become more prominent, as well.

Theme 3:New credentialing systems will arise as self-directed learning expands.” Traditional postsecondary certificates and degrees will remain important by 2026, but most employers may also accept alternative credentials from nontraditional settings, including proof of competency demonstrated through real-world portfolios. Alternative credentials may be particularly important in new and emerging disciplines that will develop to meet future economic, technical, or social needs.


Theme 4:Training and learning systems will not meet 21st-century needs by 2026.” Education systems will not be able to adapt and provide people the most in-demand skills for future work. Much of this will be based on the lack of political will and the necessary funding. In addition, online and nontraditional learning approaches may not prove to be an effective way of acquiring the most needed job skills, and traditional educational institutions will be too conservative in their thinking and approach to allow for significant change.

Theme 5:Jobs? What jobs? Technological forces will fundamentally change work and the economic landscape.” Given the implications of technological innovation and automation, there will be millions more people, and millions fewer jobs in the future. This will not just affect low-skill, low-income workers, but those in supposedly “safe” higher-income, professional positions, as well. This situation will pose a major challenge to the core principles on which our economic and social system is founded.

We can already see the seeds of some of these future scenarios in a number of current trends and conditions. Innovative nontraditional programs are certainly emerging to expand education and training options. Programs like computer coding “boot camps” and short-term skills training and certificates in key industries such as advanced manufacturing and healthcare are helping people more quickly gain the skills needed to enter and succeed in the workforce.

At the same time, though, the rising costs of postsecondary education and the expansion of unmanageable educational loan debt – primarily due to diminishing state funding for higher education – have led more students and families to question whether college is really worth the cost. Even some of those who still strongly believe in the value of a postsecondary credential wonder whether the current higher education system operates with students’ best interests at heart.

As Colorado looks to confront these education and training needs, we must increase our attention to a number of critical issues, including:

  • Expanding our view of what the “postsecondary education system” means to include a much broader range of programs, skill-building opportunities, and experiences than traditionally considered
  • Encouraging partnerships among organizations and institutions in the public and private sectors that will anticipate the need for, and more effectively develop, innovative education and training program options that meet our future workforce needs and help more Coloradans achieve financial security
  • Increasing our state investment in postsecondary education so that it does not become unaffordable for low- and middle-income students and families
  • Helping more working-age adults gain access to, and complete, both traditional and nontraditional programs leading to high-quality, in-demand postsecondary skills and credentials
  • Making educational loan debt information more available and transparent to students and families so that they can make better, more informed choices among the broad range of public, private, and for-profit postsecondary options available to them.
  • Ensuring that those who already have educational loan debt are treated fairly and honestly in the repayment and loan servicing process, and that their debt does not exclude them from achieving “the American Dream”

We need to prepare for and proactively address these and other issues to make sure that all Coloradans have the opportunity to build a better and more secure future.

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