William Greenlaw was born and raised in Northwest Indiana, once the essence of steel manufacturing, but now another notch on the rust belt. He personally witnessed friends’ and family’s livelihoods being wiped away by automation, globalization, and macro-economic restructuring. As the son of a steelworking father ever wary of impending layoffs in his factory, much of what ails the global working class is not theoretical; it is real. His parents grew up working with their hands for their livelihood, but the future of work requires different skills to put food on the table. And those skills require a mid-career, re-education in a fast-moving economy that many Americans do not have the luxury of pursuing. Another reality: Many Americans can no longer afford to wait for an education that works for them.
Our education system is unable to meet the many demands of our competitive, ever-changing, and global economy. The outdated “factory model education” that has long undergirded American education shaped by the original American Industrial Revolution, has not aged well. It is no longer properly prepares young people for future employment. The skills, abilities, and knowledge required to compete for and gain employment in today’s job market have changed drastically, even over the last decade and continues to evolve. To remain relevant, education must shift from a linear, single-degree process to prepare young people for the “fourth industrial revolution” currently underway, marked by rapid technological advancement. The future of work is synonymous with the future of education. If new technologies will displace even more blue- and white-collar workers in the future, then our education must adapt to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, while also helping today’s workforce reskill and upskill to meet the new requirements of the changing job market.
American education historically focused on tangible skills like writing, reading, and arithmetic—all critically important. Yet emerging research has identified “21st century skills” like critical thinking, communication, and technology literacy are becoming increasingly more valuable, to students and to employers, than only technical skills. Unlike routine tasks of factory work, these skills are transferable across a wide range of jobs that exist today and that will exist in the near future.
For men and women like William’s parents, re-skilling in a four-year education is too expensive and time-consuming, especially if they’re still paying down loans on a home or even another child’s education. Re-graduating with even more loans is out of the question. For our generation, the same applies. Entry level positions for even the very well-educated may be eliminated altogether. For example, the legal profession has begun adopting artificial intelligence software to remove the need of having dozens of paralegals review documents. Software design has begun employing self-improving software that mitigates the need of having too many entry level coders. And even finance has begun removing staff after finding that machines might be better than humans at identifying financial markets and executing trades, than human beings. For these people caught in transition in an economy with ubiquitous technology adoption, additional education is critical, but often unattainable.
At the Y20, the G20 Youth Summit, our international colleagues agreed. Delegates from 20 nations called on member states to re-calibrate education and improve reskilling in their countries. That’s why we overwhelmingly voted for policy recommendations to call on member states to guarantee “upskilling, and re-training educational opportunities in the ever-changing digital world” and incorporate “cross-cultural and diverse identity education, including social and interpersonal skills”. Global citizens deserve governments that deliver on education, and we call on the United States and other world leaders, to do the same for average working families nationwide.
About the Authors: William Greenlaw and Elizabeth Zalanga were selected by Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) to be the U.S. delegates to the 2018 Y20 Summit in Cordoba, Argentina. A graduate of Harvard University, William Greenlaw was born and raised in Northwest Indiana. He now works in government for the State of New York. Elizabeth is a junior at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities majoring in Global Studies.