Helping Tomorrow’s Workforce through Tough Times

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“A tough 10 years”

Automation, artificial intelligence, and technological innovation in general add up to disruption and unpredictability for American workers in all kinds of industries.

The upshot? We’re “going to go through a tough 10 years,” said Ian Siegel at last week’s U.S. News STEM Solutions meeting in Washington, DC. Cofounder and CEO of ZipRecruiter, Siegel also asserted that even if we think we understand that change is coming, the speed and nature of the change are almost sure to take us by surprise. Slight unease was roundly felt.

A hot topic

The annual STEM Solutions meeting always offers blue-sky, visionary angles on how STEM education connects to larger forces and themes shaping our home and work lives. This year focused attendees’ attentions specifically on the “Workforce of Tomorrow.” Panels, hallway conversations, and exhibit booth exchanges all buzzed with opinions and stories on the topic.

Happy to exhibit

As an exhibitor at the meeting, we found audiences getting quickly enthusiastic about how our new cybersecurity career guide matched up with the larger themes of the meeting. Discussions turned repeatedly during the two-and-a-half day meeting to how STEM education, in all its myriad forms, can best buffer the workforce of tomorrow against the unpredictable disruptions coming down the pike. We were delighted with how many people saw the book as a useful resource for pointing kids towards cybersecurity education, a STEM pathway frequently called out for its “future-proofing” potential.

Unknown unknowns

The phenomena cited by Siegel clearly occupied attention among the business and non-profit leaders, educators, policy-makers, and academics in attendance. Across nearly all sessions, people grappled with the idea that we probably don’t even know what we don’t know about how all the changes in the workforce will play out.

Moderating his ominous take on the next 10 years, Siegel did predict, “We’ll come out a happier society with the work left to do. Many jobs today are not jobs we want to do or aspire for our kids to do.” In less dramatic tones, Susan Lund, a McKinsey partner, framed the changes ahead as more evolutionary than revolutionary: "The good news is very little jobs will likely be taken entirely by artificial intelligence. For most people, what we'll see in the next five to 10 years is that your jobs will change." And Gregory Washington, dean of engineering at the University of California, Irvine, reminded his audience that, “Technology destroys jobs; it does not destroy work.” For all the change ahead, he volunteered, “The times going forward look brighter and better than the times of today.”

New collar careers

The work panelists saw as likely to be reliably available in the future would come in the form of “new collar” careers. These careers will rest on a triad of capacities in varied modalities: competence with technology, service capability, and communications and collaboration skills. Rather than preparing students for particular, defined careers, better it would be to imbue them with a cross-cutting portfolio of competencies, contained within a larger mind-set of perpetual learning and growth.

The idea of “new collar” jobs is finding wide circulation and discussion among policy makers and business leaders alike, such as at this year’s SXSW.

The idea of “new collar” jobs is finding wide circulation and discussion among policy makers and business leaders alike, such as at this year’s SXSW.

Okay, fine. Easy to sketch out in conceptual terms, but what might such an approach to education actually look like?

Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead the Way, emphasized the “integrative approach to education” that well constructed STEM studies could offer. Extending the theme of integration beyond just STEM fields, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, argued for more integration of the humanities and STEM fields. Context, nuance, ethics, and history all should be part of STEM learning as attributes of human intelligence that artificial intelligence can never replicate or replace. Humanistic learning serves, in this scheme, as insurance against displacement by robots, whatever havoc gets wrought on work as we know it now.

Persistent diversity challenges

A necessary precondition for STEM education to serve students’ futures is that students actually experience it. Despite wide agreement that STEM education was beneficial for all students, many observed pointedly that STEM education does not reach all students. Persistent challenges dog efforts to increase numbers of women and minorities in STEM fields, especially the more technology-intensive areas.

Hall of Famers focus on doing

U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame inductees, for example, addressed these questions of access and appeal. Inductees included Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday; France Córdova, National Science Foundation Director; Henry Samueli, Broadcom cofounder and Chief Technical Officer; and James West, engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University. Only the first three were able to attend.

In their remarks, the inductees described seminal experiences doing actual science or engineering tasks as children that fired their imaginations and pointed them towards their eventual career paths. This emphasis on doing real things — i.e., performance- or project-based learning — underlay many speakers’ descriptions of high-quality, accessible STEM learning. Making areas of inquiry engaging, relevant, and age-appropriate, many argued, would go a long way towards attracting a representatively diverse student cohort to STEM learning. Lost on nobody was the fact that Next Generation Science Standards, increasingly the norm for science education across the country, point in exactly this direction.

STEM Learning Ecosystems work to include and amplify the efforts of varied local stakeholders to prepare students for productive work lives.

STEM Learning Ecosystems work to include and amplify the efforts of varied local stakeholders to prepare students for productive work lives.

STEM Learning Ecosystems

Besides NGSS, a highly visible, national approach oriented towards student-centered STEM learning is the STEM Learning Ecosystems project. One of 56 such ecosystems across the country was on display at the meeting. Based in northeast Florida, the project follows the common ecosystem template of linking stakeholder groups from education, business, and government to implement holistic solutions to the education-workforce transition all groups want to students make smoothly and productively. The Florida effort has focused on computer science in an area of the state where the subject was nearly nonexistent at the K-12 level. As a result of the project, upwards of 700 teachers in the rural, seven-county area have been trained and got started teaching the subject in schools. Ecosystems across the country are working in similar ways to leverage local resources towards equitable, effective STEM education.

A triumph of planning and organization

Great credit for the rich content, A-list speakers, and diverse audience full of thought leaders goes to Brian Kelly, U.S. News editor and Chair of U.S. News STEM Solutions. Every year, he and his team bring innovations and thoughtfulness to the meeting that make it always worth the time to be there.

Did you go this year? What did you learn? Leave your comments below or be in touch directly. And feel free to share with any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Brand new for 2018! Our new Cybersecurity Career Guide shows middle and high schoolers what cybersecurity is all about and how they can find the career in the field that’s right for them. A great pair with the recently updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide.

We’ve also got appealing, fun engineering posters for K-2 and 3-5.

Our books cover the entire PreK-12 range. Get the one that’s right for you at our online shop.