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Are colleges preparing students for the automated future of work?

Northeastern University’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, has written a book on how colleges need to reform their their entire approach to education.. (Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)

President Trump’s rhetoric about the decline of the working class blames trade, immigration and the outsourcing of American jobs overseas for the decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector.

But the bigger culprit is rarely acknowledged by politicians or the media: automation. Nearly 9 in 10 jobs that have disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation, according to a study by Ball State University. As Barack Obama said in his presidential farewell speech in Chicago earlier this year, the next wave of economic dislocations “will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

And that includes many jobs that today require a college diploma. While robots driving trucks or operating machines on a factory floor make for attention-grabbing headlines, nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades, an often-cited report from Oxford University predicted in 2014. On that list were occupations long seen as stable careers, such as accounting, insurance underwriters and personal financial advisers.

Of course, the fear of technology replacing human jobs is almost as old as technology itself. When William Lee invented a mechanical knitting machine in the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant him a patent, fearing the impact of the device on the hand-knitting industry. More than two centuries later, organized bands of English workers known as Luddites destroyed more-sophisticated versions, fearing that their jobs would be supplanted by new machines.

For centuries, the answer to advancing technology was education. The belief was that additional schooling and more educational credentials would keep workers one step ahead of automation in almost any job. In the race between education and technology, education has always won.

But it’s not clear that simply adding education, particularly early in one’s life, will be enough to keep up in this new era. “If a job can be automated in the future, it will be,” Joseph E. Aoun, the president of Northeastern University in Boston, told me. “Very few are talking about the implications for higher education. We owe it to our students to be thinking about how to prepare them for the coming sea change to the future of work.”

Aoun is the author of an engaging new book, “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” about how colleges need to not only reform their curriculum but also their entire approach to education. Only a few universities, he maintained, have started to plan for what’s next in the economy. In the book, Aoun suggests three approaches that higher education needs to adopt to prepare students for the automated future.

First, is a new learning model that Aoun calls “humanics.” It blends technical and social skills, and in the process, develops “higher-order mental skills” in students that will allow them as workers to easily toggle between various jobs and tasks. “It is the purposeful integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data analytics,” Aoun said, “with uniquely human literacies, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics, cultural agility and the ability to work in diverse teams.”

For too long, he said, higher education has “debated a false dichotomy” that pits the liberal arts against the sciences and technology (and, lately, the liberal arts have been losing as science and technology majors have become more popular). “Machines are not original or flexible thinkers,” Aoun said, so “the jobs that only humans can do will also require judgment, ethics and critical thinking.”

Second, colleges need to invest in experiential education, which includes activities such as internships, undergraduate research and study abroad. “These experiences impart independence, problem-solving skills, teamwork and deepen understanding from what into why,” Aoun told me.

Northeastern operates one of the largest cooperative-education programs in the world. Unlike internships, co-ops are jobs that are part and parcel of the undergraduate experience, making up from one-third to almost half of the time a student spends in school. They are paid positions and, as a result, often are much more intensive experiences than internships and mix classroom instruction with on-the-job training.

I asked Aoun why more colleges don’t follow the Northeastern model, because it seems to be what students need for this future economy. “There are high barriers to entry,” he said. “We have 3,000 employer partners across the globe and a campus infrastructure. There are also cultural barriers — getting faculty members comfortable with being questioned by students who have fresh and relevant experience.”

Finally, the book lays out a compelling argument that education will no longer be something that ends with college or graduate school in our 20s, but is a lifelong pursuit because the know-how to succeed in a career will increasingly churn at a faster rate. It’s already happening. When more than 5,000 working adults were surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2016 about the future of work, nearly 9 in 10 said it would be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace. Northeastern, Aoun said, is already beginning to build this lifelong education platform by allowing students to easily add a second degree during their undergraduate career or soon after.

Whenever I read articles or books about the future of work, many of the predictions are downright scary and imagine scenarios in which millions of talented people are unemployed. Yet Aoun’s book is different. He’s optimistic that if higher education is able to reform in some of the ways he suggests, many new jobs will be created in the process.

“We know the changes that are necessary to innovate and adapt,” he said. “Just as higher education stepped up to meet the demands of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in generations past, I’m confident institutions can prepare the learners of today for the artificial intelligence revolution of tomorrow.”