Working with industry to determine the skills and breadth of knowledge that advanced technology employers will need technicians to have in three to five years is what two-year college educators leading Advanced Technological Education (ATE) projects and centers routinely do.
But the types of work that will soon be done by automation and artificial intelligence mean broader workforce changes that will affect more people more quickly than in the past, according to Lee Zia, deputy division director of National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, who spoke at the recent ATE Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C.
One of the studies he cited is a recent McKinsey Global Institute report that estimates that half of paid work activities — what people do in their jobs — could soon be automated. McKinsey analysts examined 2,000 work activities across more than 800 occupations. While they concluded that current machines could replace 5 percent of jobs, they estimate that “30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations could be automated.”
“Some might look at these developments and be alarmed. I, however, ever the optimist, see this as an opportunity,” Zia said.
He suggested ATE educators explore human-machine hybrids that leverage machines to free up time or do things that complement what humans do well, such as persuade, interpret, compare and make judgments.
“This community is ideally positioned to do that. I have great faith in what you’ve done thus far. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity that we’re in,” Zia said.
One of the many ATE initiatives embracing the overall STEM workforce challenge is the newly funded Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work project led by the Center for Occupational Research and Development. Its leaders seek input from community college educators in addition to convening regional meetings for the ATE community to collaborate with industry partners within and across disciplines.
The Equity and Inclusion STEM Thought Leaders’ Summit, a pilot project of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), takes a more grassroots approach. During the meeting held in conjunction with the ATE PI Conference that AACC hosts, faculty-and-administrator teams from 15 community colleges participated in a planning process developed by the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE). The process helped these STEM educators organize action plans for particular technician education challenges at minority-serving institutions or rural colleges in ways that address equity and inclusion of populations historically underrepresented in STEM workplaces.
NAPE also leads the Educators’ Equity in STEM (EESTEM) II. This ATE project builds on its previous ATE-funded work with Doña Ana Community College in New Mexico and Stark State College in Ohio that examined the “micromessages” that students receive about STEM careers. The professional development it is now offering to community colleges with ATE support uses NAPE’s Micromessaging to Reach and Teach Every Student curriculum.
Support from the top
During a panel discussion at the conference, three community college presidents strongly encouraged current ATE principal investigators to lead their colleges’ efforts to address challenges surrounding the future of work. All three presidents were principal investigators earlier in their careers and as CEOs have created the infrastructure at their community colleges to help faculty obtain and successfully execute ATE grants.
“The work of the future will be different, and it will require our students to be more agile so they can adapt,” said Annette Parker, president of South Central College in Minnesota.
A National Academy of Sciences committee that Parker serves on has identified “agility and adaptability to change and emotional intelligence on how you work with people and how you can advance common goals” as key STEM workplace skills. “It takes brains to do that work, and that is what ATE is advancing,” she said.
Calling this the “golden age of community colleges,” David T. Harrison, president of Columbus State Community College in Ohio, noted that community colleges are “are better equipped than any institutions” to address the future work challenge.
Edwin Massey, president of Indian River State College, urged attendees not to shy away from talking with their presidents and trustees about this issue.
“Go back. Work hard to adjust your culture to be receptive to the culture of change. Embrace change, welcome change,” Massey said.