Building a Workforce for the Digital Age

21st Century skills: What are they? How can we prepare our students for the workplace of the future? Guest blogger Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Professor of Advanced Manufacturing and Head of the Computer Graphics Technology Department at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, gives us some insight on the path of manufacturing education from the Industrial Revolution to the present day and shares his assessment of the tools students will need for the future.

Full disclosure: Nathan Hartman is one of my former students. Working with him on this blog post has been a distinct pleasure. Welcome back to my American Classroom, Nathan!

According to several studies, somewhere around the year 2025, the typical U.S. worker will have around 20% of the information they need to do their job created and delivered to them by a machine, likely some type of computer. Near that same time period, the world will experience over 35 billion connections to the Internet. Living in such a connected world will no doubt have an influence on how people work, as well as how they are prepared for such work. A very good example of this playing out before our eyes today is in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Nathan Hartman and his Purdue Polytechnic student, teaching and learning for the future

According to many of those same studies, by 2025, the U.S. will have likely experienced the creation of roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs that do not exist today and will still have roughly 2 million unfilled jobs that have been digitally transformed to require a new skill set. This scenario will create even more strain on an already burdened labor market in manufacturing. Couple that strain with new models of working, such as a borderless workforce and non-hierarchical organizations and the design and manufacture of wearable products and continuously connected devices, and one can see that an entirely new ecosystem of work is developing. One for which our current education systems and methods have but minimal preparation. Current life expectancies in developed countries point to a person born today living to be nearly 100 years old. How do we educate a person born today to exist in a world where they not only change jobs multiple times but potentially change careers multiple times?

By most accounts these days, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is doing well, even with the recent downturn in the automotive industry. However, it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading something about the challenge companies are facing in hiring. According to numerous recent studies by the likes of Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey, and others, the current manufacturing output is high, but the future looks a bit bleak. Not necessarily due to competition with low-labor-cost countries or some governmental policy per se, but to a lack of a skilled workforce coupled with rapid technological change. Most authorities peg the shortage between 2 million and 3 million manufacturing workers by 2027. Regardless of the cause, even if the worker shortage is “fixed,” it will not likely address a more fundamental trend in the U.S. people choosing other career fields over manufacturing. But before diving into a discussion about education and workforce development, let’s look briefly at the technological transformation at the heart of this predicament.

Most of us grew up learning about the Industrial Revolution – the mechanization of work to ease the load on human beings and to increase their efficiency. However, what many people may not be aware of is that we have had several industrial revolutions over the last two hundred years. Industry 1.0 began with the mechanization of work, which led to the electrification of work during Industry 2.0 in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the early 1960s with the rise of personal and industrial computing, electrification of work gave way to the automation of work to create Industry 3.0. And as those technologies became commonplace and we saw the uses of data expand, we have arrived in the 2010s at Industry 4.0 – the digitalization of information to support the automation and computing backbones that already have been built. Not only are we on our fourth industrial revolution, but the elapsed time between the revolutions has been substantially decreasing.

In parallel with the technological gains in efficiency, accuracy, and sustainability that it is experiencing today, the manufacturing sector is struggling to transform its workforce. For every industrial revolution the world has seen, there has been an accompanying educational revolution. In the U.S. and Europe, those transformations came in the movement away from the master/apprentice model (Education 1.0) to the movement around Manual Arts and Industrial Arts (Education 2.0), which focused on basic job skills for the growing mass production economy. Over the 20th century, we saw the move towards Technology Education, with its focus on domain-specific content areas and a systemic view of technology as a discipline in and of itself (Education 3.0). The current education transformation relative to manufacturing is now focused on design thinking and a ‘system of systems’ view (Education 4.0) of developing and implementing technology and using digital data to assess, diagnose, and implement solutions to problems.

Yet, if we have had parallel revolutions between industry and education, why does the manufacturing sector find itself with such a shortage of skilled workers, and how might we begin to address this shortage? How we can adapt our Education 4.0 revolution to better address the needs of the manufacturing sector of our economy? The dawning of technologies such as additive manufacturing, high-performance computing and data analytics, generative design, and artificial intelligence means that humans will no longer have the cognitive playing field to themselves. Machines will be able to process more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer errors than their human counterpart, at least in some activities. That could make the hollowing-out of human tasks, now cognitive as well as manual, far greater than ever before. So what do humans have left? What should we prepare our students for?

Project-based Learning offers students opportunities for critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and collaboration: all, 21st Century skills. This picture is from the Purdue D-Bait project at McCutcheon High School, reported in a previous blog post, It’s Not about the Lure

Demand for skills of the head (cognitive) have dominated those of the hands (technical) and to a lesser extent, those of the heart (social) over the past 300 years.  In the future, a tighter coupling will need to exist between a person’s cognitive knowledge and their technical and affective knowledge. During the first three Industrial Revolutions, the skills workers needed to keep ahead of the machines were largely cognitive. Machines were doing manual tasks and cognitive tasks were the exclusive domain of humans. However, with the rise of social networks, artificial intelligence, and the digitalization of information, Industry 4.0 threatens to change the balance of power in what had been exclusively the human’s cognitive domain. Students must be exposed to and become proficient in multiple modes of problem-solving; that is, they will need an education that prepares them to perform cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition. They will need to solve problems whose solutions require great (but logical) leaps of imagination. There will remain a demand for skills to program, test and oversee machines. Personalized design and manufacturing will become more common as the information needed to customize products for individuals is more readily available. A student’s ability to use social skills to execute, and when necessary, lead initiatives that require emotional intelligence rather than cognitive intelligence alone. Preparing graduates solely for cognitive skills will not be enough for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We must build upon the traditional literacies of reading, writing, and mathematics. Students still must be able to take in information, assimilate it with what they already know, and form a conclusion. They must still be able to understand the physical and temporal phenomena expressed by modern mathematics and science. However, we must move them past simply assimilating and synthesizing information and towards interpretation and systematic decision making based on that information synthesis. New types of literacy might include:

  • Data literacy: the ability to read, analyze and apply information. Advanced data gathering and analytics tools will increase the quantity and quality of information available to people, and use contextual cues to help them in understanding what is presented to them. It will be incumbent on our students to know how to apply that information to their problem and to be able to discern accurate and useful information from that which is not.
  • Technological literacy: coding and engineering principles. Technologies have been created and used since the beginning of humankind, which is arguably one of the things that separate humans from their ancestors. Yet this new incarnation of technological literacy will enable our students to incorporate factual and procedural, process-oriented information into the physical tools and objects they design and build, thus creating a more “intelligent” products.
  • Human literacy: humanities, communication and design. Our ability and willingness to connect to fellow human beings through, and in spite of, our technologies will become increasingly important. Solving complex problems will not only require the rational theorems and postulates of our mathematical techniques, but the empathy that comes from being human, as we have yet to develop a computing technology with the human capacity to assimilate, interpret, and feel.

Finally, as we develop in our students these higher-order literacies based on digital tools and information, we must also move them towards higher-order mindsets and ways of thinking about and viewing the world. We must encourage them to embrace systems thinking, not necessarily the abstract mathematical representations of it, but the Gestaltist view that yields the ability to view an enterprise, machine or subject holistically, making connections between different functions in an integrative way. Entrepreneurship will become increasingly important, although not in the economic sense per se, but in the application of creative thinking to solve problems and take risks in implementing those solutions in our social institutions. Our students must also become culturally agile as physical, geographic borders become less and less relevant in an age of global commerce and the economic viability of singular customers. And we must encourage and challenge our students to embrace ambiguity as a fact of life and to employ critical thinking as much as possible. The habits of disciplined, rational analysis and judgment will serve them well in a world that increasingly relies on digital information and the accompanying networks to disseminate it.

The manufacturing sector and the education system that supports it cannot hide from these technological changes. It would be like trying to away from a tsunami: We will eventually be overtaken. As an educational community, we must embrace these changes, engage with the manufacturing sector, and adapt our respective curricula to meet the needs of a future and a transitioning workforce. By doing so, we can provide the manufacturing sector with the workforce it needs, and we can provide the manufacturing workforce pipeline some sense of stability in an otherwise rapidly advancing future.

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