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At the right place before the right time

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Commentary

Futurists Carolyn Corbin and Jeff Wacker share their ideas about what will influence education and the economy over the next 20 years.

Photo: ​James Tkatch

​Community colleges have a reputation for quickly adjusting to the needs of the communities they serve, especially when it comes to workforce preparation. However, in order to remain competitive, they will need to identify and respond even faster to what drives economic change, particularly technology.

That’s the message from two “futurists” at the 2013 Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators Conference last week in Washington, D.C.

“The idea is to calculate when you should be at the right place, and [figuring out] what is the right time. In futurism, we talk about being in the right place before the right time, because if you are at the right place after the right time or even at the right time, you will be too late,” said Carolyn Corbin, an author and president of the Center for the 21st Century. Her company formulates plans for corporations, nonprofits and government organizations. 

Corbin sees globalization and new technologies as “game changers” that have placed society on the cusp of massive socioeconomic change.

Bits, atoms, cells and more

Jeff Wacker, who spoke with Corbin, summarized the five main technologies driving change as “bits, atoms, cells, gears and joules.”

Wacker, who retired in 2012 from Hewlett-Packard/EDS where he helped to develop ultra-efficient data centers, warns educators that the current iteration of change will be much shorter than the historic 40-year cycle.

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“It’s not 20 years off. It’s going to be maybe 10 years off. Some of this has already started,” he said. “You need to understand it; you need to anticipate it; you need to get your courseware ready for it; and you need to be able to start training people for it because the jobs are going to come from these five areas.”

The “bits” that Wacker predicts will create more information technology jobs with “smarter” computers and more computer-capable devices that have attributes like those added to phones and cameras.

He expects that advances in nanotechnology and materials science will push demand for technicians able to assemble materials at the nano and micro scale.

Similarly, individuals who are able to work with “cells” will find a broad range of employment opportunities in biotechnology and biomanufacturing.

Robots are the “gears” in Wacker’s list of future drivers. Although robots will continue to displace workers, he sees them as a source of numerous jobs for people who can build, maintain and manipulate the complex machines. 

Wacker, who worked on embedded technologies for the oil and gas industries, thinks new ways of harvesting heat and energy from micro sources, such as inventions that capture the kinetic energy of human movement, will be the source of “joule”-related jobs.

New world order?

Corbin said the combination of globalization and new technologies will create chaos that can lead to polarization and the desire to retreat to bygone eras. She advised educators to resist the urge to address new challenges with “yesterday’s solutions.” 

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“You can make a difference in what happens because education is so important to the future of our country,” she said.

Corbin predicts that three shifts will help the U.S. be competitive and socially sustainable in the next 20 years. They are a “purer form of capitalism,” with more individual responsibility and fewer social safety nets; replacement of human labor with sophisticated technologies that require different skill sets; and learning and continual retooling of skills.

As machines do more routine work tasks, people’s ability to relate to others, communicate and manage conflict will become basic job requirements. As companies hire more contractors rather than employees with benefits, individuals with entrepreneurial skills and the capacity to operate independently will have tremendous opportunities.

Entrepreneurial education

Corbin suggested that community colleges embed curricula with what she calls “indipreneurial skills” that not only teach critical thinking but also how to optimize opportunities, analyze data, and set and track goals. She also called for academic rigor and explicit lessons that teach students to work harder when tasks become difficult.

While the continuing education mission of community colleges puts them ahead of other institutions when it comes to preparing students for the workforce, Wacker said the name needs to change to accurately reflect what is happening.

“I think it should be changed to continuous education because you need to be able to impart to people what they need even before they know they need it, but on a continuous basis,” he said.

The option for people to acquire academic and industry credentials that are not tied to particular institutions will further accelerate trends that are already changing where people go to learn, the arrangement of learning environments and how long people enroll.

Corbin anticipates teachers will become more learning-style specialists who customize lessons for students with digital content from specialists.

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