Training for jobs that don't exist

Did you know that the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have held 10-14 jobs by age 38?

Did you know that for students starting a four-year technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study?

That is just a small taste of a presentation initially created through a collaboration between Colorado high school technology teacher Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod of Iowa State University. The resulting “Did You Know?/Shift Happens” has scored millions of views online and has undergone several revisions by the likes of Sony BMG Entertainment and The Economist magazine.

According to Fisch, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented … in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

The presentation poignantly illustrates an issue those of us in higher education would prefer not to think about: the value and utility of the degrees we confer. Confronted with this and similar research, I’ve had to contemplate how Union College can prepare graduates for this fluid job market and fast-changing world.

The good news is our alumni consistently tell us through surveys and their stories that Union prepared them for change. Our challenge now is to take what we have done for years without thinking about it and make it an intentional process at the center of a Union College education.

Preparing for the Unknown

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time before accountants used computerized spreadsheets, before graphic designers had Photoshop and before marketers used social media. No amount of technical knowledge could have prepared professionals in these—and most other—careers for the fundamental change computers and networks brought.

We don’t know what future social or technological revolutions will mean for the careers our students are preparing for today, but we do know which skills will help them succeed when change comes. Out of a large volume of research, we saw a consistent theme from employers about three skills they see as vital to success in any profession:

  • Communication – The key to success in all areas of life lies in the ability to effectively share ideas, and more importantly, to actively listen when others try to communicate.
  • Adaptability - All graduates must be prepared to adapt both within their field of study and for careers that may not exist yet. They must have the ability to recognize the direction of change and have the flexibility to adapt to it.
  • Problem solving skills – Everyone faces complex circumstances. The graduate who knows how to work through problems will have an advantage.

We are not replacing the traditional curriculum of facts, research and technical competence, but integrating opportunities to learn in the real (and really complicated) world both on and off our campus. We believe our approach is unique, one completely owned by the employees of our school, and makes sense for students both before and after graduation.

Learning can happen while eating at Union Market, worshipping in the church, competing on the sports field, in an advisor’s office, or studying in the dorm. Most support staff impact students on a daily basis—often in more significant ways than teachers. In our new approach to higher education, every employee will take an active role in mentoring the students that he or she influences on a daily basis to help each one learn these vital skills.

We have planned several training sessions for the spring 2010 semester to help prepare faculty and staff for this role. Starting next school year, we will begin to hold each employee accountable for mentoring the students in his or her sphere of influence. We are developing measurable goals that will become a significant factor as administrators weigh promotions and pay raises each year.

The students have a part to play as well. According to College Learning for the New Global Century, a 2007 report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, many students have taken a passive approach to just “getting a diploma” while not applying themselves and learning skills vital to success in a changing marketplace. And institutions have not held students accountable for just “getting by.”

The personal and relational components of a Union College education, whether through mentorship, student work experiences, academic advising or internships, will require students to take a more active role in their educations. Students will work with faculty and staff to find or create opportunities to hone their communication, adaptability and problem solving skills and also assess their own progress in an electronic portfolio that will become part of their collegiate record.

As I have said, this is not a revolutionary concept at Union College, but a new intentionality applied to Union’s strengths. This issue of CORDmagazine shares the stories of several Union students preparing for real-world workplaces through internships, and tells of our alumni who have found success in very different careers than those they trained for in college. It also details the paths that led the leaders of our academic divisions to their current roles. This is an issue about change: preparing for it, adapting too it, and assessing its effects.

The Challenge

Right now parents and students are most interested in the cheapest, quickest way to a career. But all of that preparation for a single career may not be enough to help that student succeed in a world where change is the only constant.

At Union College, we hope to help students and parents understand the value of a well-rounded education that will incorporate key life skills into every area of learning and ultimately better prepare them for any challenge they might encounter. If this is the kind of education you want for the young people in your life, let us know as we continue to build this program. You can reach me at president [at]