In the Future of Work, robots are supposed to wipe out tons of jobs, create a bunch of new ones or deliver some combination of both. Economists predict any of these scenarios will force the average worker to do practically the same thing throughout their careers: keep learning and learning and learning.
Some colleges in the United States are already preparing for this age of perpetual education, including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The Ann Arbor school launched a scholarship program that pays for graduates to take classes there forever, and the number of students is slowly growing.
The 42 courses, which normally cost $10,000 each for a week in the classroom, explore leadership, marketing, human resources and finance. (Students cover food, lodging and a $1,250 administrative fee.)
“What is now true for a Michigan Ross student is your tuition is an upfront subscription, and that subscription happens to be for life,” said Scott DeRue, the school’s dean.
DeRue declined to say how much the effort has cost, but so far, only a handful of Ross’s roughly 580,000 alumni have taken up the offer. About 40 students returned to learn new skills in 2015, the program’s first year, and 200 did so in 2017.
“It’s an investment on our side, but we think it’s the right investment to make,” DeRue said. “We see our relationship with students not as a transaction but as a lifetime partnership.”
Most colleges provide some form of continuing education (and usually with a hefty price tag), but the concept of regular reskilling in a campus environment is relatively new. Ross’s curriculum is meant to be nimble, DeRue said, and to transform along with the economy.
The idea of an “open loop” education — a more flexible relationship between school and graduate, rather than the traditional four-year path to a degree — originated at Stanford University in 2014, when members of the design school were asked to imagine how the college should function by 2025. Researchers proposed allowing students to sign up for six years of classes in any major and take them whenever they want — a chunk after high school, perhaps, followed by a refresh a couple of decades into their professional lives. But the model has not become a reality.
Lisa Lapin, vice president of communications at Stanford, said the school is still in the process of reinventing its lifetime offerings, “but the details are to be developed by working groups and design groups over the course of the next year.”
In a speech at Columbia University in New York last week, Thomas Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, said that no one can forecast precisely how automation will warp employment — though he expects more opportunities than losses. Humans in practically every industry, he said, will have to learn how to work with technology, which will continue to rapidly evolve.
“We need to assume people will need to keep learning throughout their lives to continue to be productive,” he said.
Less of a given, he said, is how we will pay for that.
Ross is the first university to foot the postgraduate tuition bill. Unions might have to step in, he said, and crowdfund bouts of reskilling. The government could invest in micro-apprenticeships.
Purdue University in Indiana, meanwhile, has another model that Malone could see spreading to graduates wishing to reskill. The university allows students to fund their schooling with future paychecks. (An economics graduate, for example, might send back 3.38 percent of their salary for 100 months.)
While technology is sparking this need for regular transformation, however, workers also must hone more than digital talents. A May study from the global consultancy McKinsey said the demand for technological skills will surge by 55 percent over the next 12 years, while desire for leadership and management skills will jump by 24 percent.
“Employers will want to see social and emotional skills,” said economist Susan Lund, who co-authored the report. “Creativity, decision-making, real-time problem-solving skills.”
Machines, she explained, aren’t even close to being able to operate in unpredictable environments. They’re more likely to take over jobs that involve heavy repetition. (A 5-year-old kid still displays more creativity than the most advanced artificial intelligence, MIT’s Malone has pointed out.)
Feeling rusty at the office, of course, isn’t only a feature of technological advancement.
Edward Beltran, executive vice president of finance and operations at Fierce Inc., a leadership development firm in Seattle, said he wanted to return to school in 2016, about a decade after he graduated from the University of Michigan’s school of business.
“As I moved up the ladder,” he said, “I realized I wanted more.”
Then he stumbled upon the Ross program and paid about $2,000 for his flight and hotel.
Back on campus, he practiced developing a company’s “vision,” or the map by which major decisions are made. That required a lot of human conversation: building relationships, setting priorities, talking through questions that robots can’t answer.
“Why are you there besides getting a paycheck?” he asked. “How do you carry that forward?”