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Commentary: New Economy Requires Workers to Keep Learning

Posted by chamberadmin on December 17, 2014

December 16, 2014  |  
By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – The leader of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said it plainly.

“If (the competition for jobs and labor) is just about who is the cheapest, we won’t ever win that fight. We have to make the competition about adding value,” said Michael Huber, the chamber’s chief executive officer and president.

Huber and I were talking about the Indianapolis chamber’s 2015 legislative agenda. That wish list focuses on workforce development.

Huber said what thriving communities will need is an approach to education – and particularly higher education – freed from the shackles of false choices. He said there are jobs that will require technical skills but, for two reasons, even technical schooling can’t focus exclusively on developing those skills.

The first is the rate of change is so rapid that such skills often become outdated.

The second is that purely technical training often leaves a person without the critical thinking, problem-solving and adaptive skills necessary to survive in a changing world.

I thought about the conversation with Huber when I read a column Purdue University President (and former Indiana governor) Mitch Daniels wrote about higher education for TheStatehouseFile.com.

Daniels touts, with justice, the successes Purdue has seen in regards to streamlining the educational experience and containing costs. But, as I read his column, I couldn’t help but think that the challenges confronting higher education will involve still greater changes.

Colleges, universities and vocational schools are about to find themselves in a revolution, whether they want one or not.

The stakes are huge.

Abundant evidence suggests there will be a worldwide labor shortage within 15 years. That will set off an international competition for workers. It also will drive up wages.

All of that is good – for the workers who have been prepared to meet the demand.

The ones who aren’t prepared to deal with this brave new world will face a double whammy. Not only will they not share in the elevator ride of increased wages, but they probably will be hit with increased prices for basic goods those higher wages will produce. Those who lose this race likely will stay lost for a long time.

And here’s the tricky part: Because things are changing so rapidly, we can’t know with precision what sectors of the economy will have the greatest demand for labor – and just what things the people who will work in those in-demand sectors will need to know.

What reason tells us is that we will need to stop seeing all education, but particularly higher education, as a finite process. The most important skill to have if one wants to thrive in this coming and increasingly Darwinian new world is the ability to learn – and keep learning.

We tend to see the pursuit of education as a contest between the development of marketable skills (pre-professional and technical programs) and learning for the sake of learning (the liberal arts).

That’s always been a false choice, but now it may be a suicidal one. It’s clear that the people who will survive and prosper in the coming years can’t choose between the specific skill sets that more technical training provides and the problem-solving and lifelong learning skills the liberal arts tend to offer.

They will need – do need – both. This is not an either/or but a both/and situation.

But that calls for a greater, rather than a lesser, commitment to education. And that isn’t exactly the direction we’re going.

A couple of years ago, in an attempt to control costs, Indiana reduced the requirements for graduation to 120 hours. The motivation was understandable, even admirable, but the decision was shortsighted.

When I graduated from college more than 30 years ago, the graduation requirement was 136 hours. I see little evidence the world has grown 12 percent less complex since I graduated – or that young people can afford to be 12 percent less educated than I was when I entered the work force.

The brutal fact is that Michael Huber is right. Whether we’re talking about Indianapolis, Indiana or the United States as a whole, if the competition for jobs and labor comes down to being the cheapest option, we never will win that fight.

And that means that we have no choice but to strive to be the best.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.