Project Hosts Regional Convenings on the Future of Work

By Madeline Patton

Following on the work of its 2019 face-to-face convening in Winston-Salem, NC, in autumn 2020 the Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work project continued its development of regional partnerships with a virtual convening of representatives from Texas Gulf Coast employers, education institutions, and non-profit workforce development organizations.

Principal Investigator Ann-Claire Anderson opened the sessions by explaining that the purpose of the project is “to help colleges work in interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, inter-sector ways with industry and with one another so that we can make sure their program graduates are ready to use technologies that are just a twinkling in someone’s eye right now.”

The Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD), which is the project’s host institution, partnered with San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, to convene the three, 90-minute Zoom meetings. Prior to COVID-19 the project had planned an in-person workshop at the college’s 45,000-square foot, waterfront Maritime Technology & Training Center.

Each session concentrated on one of the three categories of cross-cutting skills that the project has identified as essential for technicians to understand in the future.

      • Business Knowledge and Processes (October 30)
      • Advanced Digital Literacy (November 6)
      • Data Knowledge and Analysis (November 13)

Summaries of the featured speakers’ presentations are below. Slides from their presentations as well as information about the instructional materials being developed by Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work, and research reports from various sources are at https://www.preparingtechnicians.org/san-jac-convening

NEXT STEPS

The final session wrapped up on a high note with plans to continue working together. Several people volunteered immediately when Hope Cotner, chief executive officer of CORD, asked whether those in attendance and their organizations would be willing to collaborate with the project to create and implement a regional approach for new instructional strategies, new content approaches, and new workplace experiences to educate technicians.

“I definitely would love to be part of this,” said Spencer Cole, a senior talent acquisition advisor at BASF Corporation.

Sarah Janes, associate vice chancellor of San Jacinto College, suggested that a regional Preparing Technicians for Future of Work initiative would benefit from meshing with established efforts led by the Greater Houston Partnership, a workforce development organization with 1,000 member companies, and the Community College Partnership in Workforce, which holds monthly meetings with educators from the nine community colleges in the Texas Gulf Coast.

Janes also expressed the hope that the project’s work would fit with the efforts of San Jacinto’s technical deans to develop digital literacy modules that instructors could use across disciplines.

During the next few months the committee of volunteers will draft regional recommendations that both identify and prioritize the cross-discipline skills that employers along the Texas Gulf Coast expect to need in the future. The project’s ambitious goal is for the group to develop a prototype instructional resource for an interdisciplinary STEM education core for technicians.

After thanking those who agreed to join the ad hoc committee, Anderson said, “I’m glad that you are going to stay in touch with us, because I think we have more that we can offer one another.”

The project plans to build on what it learns in the Texas Gulf Coast in other areas of the country and is searching for community colleges interested in hosting convenings to develop regional strategies for developing the future technical workforce. To host a regional convening contact Anderson at anderson@cord.org.

Business Knowledge and Processes

Donald McCoy, a K-to-College STEM education consultant with Donald McCoy and Associates, shared his insights about the business knowledge and processes that will be essential for technicians to succeed in the future.

One of the messages that McCoy imparts to students is this: “It’s not so much your ability to maintain a job. It’s your ability to be flexible and adaptable within all the work-based opportunities that come to you, and you having the right skill set to go there.”

That skill set includes technicians knowing 1) why the employer is in business as well as the business’s goals; 2) who the key customers are both internally and externally; and 3) how the technicians’ job assignment fits into the business organization. He explained that when technicians understand the business cycle and how processes work together they are better able to reduce costs and increase profit margins.

McCoy urged educators to use scenarios and problem-based learning whenever possible to give students these business insights. He also encouraged the use of remote instructional technologies even after the dangers of COVID-19 have passed.

“I implore every educator on this call and business partner to leverage this remote learning environment that we are doing here—to use virtual labs in your classroom, simulations devices in your classroom, cloud-based apps—because these will better help prepare our employees for the future, and these are significant because they are not going away.”

Advanced Digital Literacy

John Sands, principal investigator of the National Support Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA) at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, provided an overview of fifth-generation cellular network (5G), the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and security integration management (SIEM), to explain the technological leaps technicians will be expected to make as they acquire digital wisdom.

Sands said 5G “is really going to change the way we do things;” IoT is “going to give us the ability for monitoring down to the micro;” and AI “is in just about every product” and enables everything from smarter manufacturing, more efficient logistics, better agriculture productivity, and more accurate health diagnoses.

“All of these technologies that I talk about basically wrap into cybersecurity. It’s important because the area of cyber has changed dramatically. First of all we’ve taken a lot of things out of the hands of individuals and we’ve incorporated systems into the decision making.  So we have security event management systems that use AI, that use IoT,” he said.

Amid the complexities of these changes are opportunities for community colleges. For example, the Department of Defense is now requiring its 360,000 contractor companies to prove their cybersecurity integrity. Many of these companies are turning to community colleges to up-skill their employees. Meanwhile the Cybersecurity Workforce Framework developed by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education has 52 different federally defined work roles that translate into career opportunities for students.

“As the center of the universe for technical education, community colleges are really going to have to change how they do things, establish greater partnerships, and become part of these systems that are changing,” Sands said.

Data Knowledge and Analysis

Todd McLees, a strategist who founded the Pendio Group, pointed out that workplace changes are accelerating due to machine learning, other technology innovations, and modifications to limit transmission of COVID-19. He urged educators to prepare technicians to replace a portion of their job skills continuously.

“Technicians’ roles will continue to evolve, and again it won’t necessarily be that one year this job is available and the next year it’s not. That will be present. But more and more often what it will mean is the need for transdisciplinarity—depth of knowledge across multiple disciplines—and the ability to be adaptive because 10% of our job is going away; 18% of our job is changing,” he said.

People not only need to acquire the skills the World Economic Forum considers important, McLees said, they must also be willing to “shed” skills that a machine can do more efficiently.

“The other piece of Industry 4.0 right now is this thought of learning how to learn and being adaptive. The ability to be willing to let go of a certain element of our identity,” he said, referring to the connection people often feel to their workplace skills and assigned tasks.

He encouraged educators to give students a foundation of skills and make them aware their jobs will likely change often. He cited one estimate that current students will have 17 different jobs in five different industries during their careers. Excelling while frequently changing jobs will involve a constant cycle of letting go of skills and building new skills to perform the next new task, McLees said.

“This proactive nature of helping people let go of the skills that they’ve developed—but also helping them up-skill so they have something to move to—is such an important aspect to create that adaptability,” he said.

Data knowledge and analysis will be key for technicians, he said, predicting that new jobs will emerge in the spaces where humans and machine converge.

“What do technicians do best on the job every day? What machines can be used? And what new roles will exist in the future where human beings will train intelligent technologies and automation technologies? They will help explain those technologies to the others around them to include their customers. And, they will help build the systems by giving the feedback on how the system is working, what the customer experience is, so that the technology can consistently be improved and trained,” McLees said.

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