The Future of Work Has Much Bigger Problems Than Disrupting Higher Education

610 200 Van Ton-Quinlivan

(Photo: Parker Knight/Flickr)

Originally published on Medium.

Many of the tech entrepreneurs and venture investors in the audience at my recent Bloomberg BETA panel on Trade Schools of the Future came with the impression that disrupting higher education was the key to solving future of work issues. By the end of the discussion, they thought otherwise.

When it comes to the future of work, the big issue is not getting higher education to adopt technology or bypass existing institutions. Rather, the future dilemma lies in figuring out who will pay for the frequency of education and training that is required for us humans to keep up in the next economy.

According to the report, “Taking Action: Positioning Low-Income Workers to Succeed in a Changing Economy,” in the 1970s, only one in four jobs required any post-secondary education. Today, two in three jobs require at least some post-secondary education or training.

The traditional model of higher education and training is akin to a health immunization. We get a one-time inoculation in the form of a college degree in our early 20s, and this has historically enabled people to weather the cycles of business during their lifespan.

However, the one-time inoculation model no longer suffices for economic resilience in the new norm of education and training. Instead, adults must secure continuous and frequent booster shots of upskilling in order to keep up.

Unfortunately, with student debt burgeoning to $1.5 trillion in 2019, the public coffers can barely afford the former paradigm, much less underwrite a more expensive model where learning is continuous.

Some argue that the private sector should bear the burden of the education and training as was done a generation ago when a stronger employment compact between workers and employers existed. Yes, employers should do their share of internal training and join the trend to offer tuition disbursement for all employees — not just managerial ones.

But that won’t solve the problem because most workers don’t stay with one employer for very long. Employee tenure on jobs has shortened to 4.2 years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with many Americans moving into independent or gig work.

That leaves only individuals to foot the bill. “Today, half of all Americans earn $15 or less per hour,” states the Hatcher Group’s 2019 report calling for a reality check.

It’s clearly time to think outside of the box.

I spoke about this dilemma at the June 2019 Future Workforce Now convening of the National Governors Association in DC. While participating in an ideation session on alternatives for tackling the financing dilemma, my group came up with ideas like the “529C,” a portable continuous learning savings account that both individuals and employers can contribute to like a 501K.

We also saw a need to establish new public financing vehicles. One idea was to have a regional training trust where voters can decide to tax themselves (like a facilities bond) to pay for more in their communities to secure industry-valued credentials.

In addition, we recognized national experiments with income sharing agreements (ISAs) where students are not charged tuition until they start in a job that pays at least a minimum earning threshold of $50,000.

And how can industries where credentials and certifications are crucial to most careers, such as healthcare, help these workers get ahead? Again, think outside the box. SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West union members in California will be taking a vote to contribute their own funds to establish a workers co-op to help union members’ family and friends secure allied health credentials.

Our country is creating asset-poor jobs and, until we find a better way, increased education and training alone cannot not solve the rising inequality. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

The future of work calls for more of us to experiment with new products, services, social structures and policies to find ways to help individuals pace with the economy to come. Please share your own efforts with me in the comment section of this blog.

Van Ton-Quinlivan is a member of the CA Fwd Leadership Council.


Van Ton-Quinlivan

All stories by: Van Ton-Quinlivan