Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work: Learners and Earners

By Dr. Robert E. Johnson

I hope you enjoyed reading my first blog, “A Vision for the New Traditional University,” in my blog series, The Academy, Leadership, and the Future is Now. It is again my pleasure and privilege to share my thoughts with you in this second blog of the series.

As a future-focused leader, I am proud to be at the helm of a future-focused institution and I look forward to our learning together to powerfully prepare the next generation for the future of work.

The pace of change dictates that we must, and will, skate to where we think the puck is going—not where it is—to paraphrase hockey great Wayne Gretzky. It is to our own peril if we do not remain steadfastly future-focused.

What will the future of work look like?

McKinsey & Company, a global leader that helps organizations and their leaders innovate more sustainably, achieve lasting performance gains, and build workforces that will thrive for this generation and the next, states that 30% of jobs in America and 800 million jobs globally could be lost to automation by 2030 (McKinsey 2030). According to the World Economic Forum, three major trends are affecting how human capital is developed and deployed around the world (World Economic-Human Capital). First, globalization and technology are accelerating job creation and destruction. Second, education and training systems, having remained largely static for decades, are not keeping pace with these shifts. Third, outdated cultural norms and institutional inertia create roadblocks for half of the world’s talent. They assert that these factors together exacerbate income inequality and fuel political and social turmoil. As we prepare the next generation of leaders, our graduates must understand their role in a complex global society.

A recent article in global media company Forbes (Forbes-Future of Work) states that skills “such as empathy, emotional intelligence, kindness, mindfulness, adaptability, integrity, optimism, self-motivation, grit, and resilience—have become crucial to success.” Deloitte, a leading global provider of audit and assurance, consulting, financial advisory, risk advisory, tax, and related services, notes that hiring people with these essential human skills in some occupations could increase revenue by $90,000 with a single hire (Deloitte). The aforementioned, along with disruption engendered by the rapid pace of change means institutions of higher learning must not just rethink the curriculum but also how we give our students the skillsets and mindsets to be agile in a post-COVID economy.

What is required to powerfully prepare students for the future of work? 

At the most macro level, we are educating young people today for jobs that do not yet exist, to solve problems we have yet to identify. Our collective responsibility is to help students understand they must be adaptive, nimble, and entrepreneurial with a value-creation orientation. Possessing that view will be required to thrive in the future of work.

We must commit to graduating a generation of students and leaders prepared to adapt and succeed in a dynamic future—one where jobs, as we know them, may no longer exist, career mobility is the norm, and individuals are responsible for their business model, and must continuously create value.

They must be innovators responsible for their brand and business model, equipped to reinvent themselves throughout their professional careers. As the world changes, they must change. Their future is now! The Academy must prepare them not only with the knowledge and domain skills for their chosen professions, but also teach them how to explore their “why,” animate and articulate their unique value proposition, get that first job, and create every job thereafter. They must continuously create value in all they do. In short, they need to become their own competitive advantage.

This requires both skillsets and mindsets for a rapidly changing world and a future that is, by definition, not in full focus. They must be able to operate in a digital world, utilizing nascent technologies while simultaneously preparing to learn not yet created technologies—and likely navigate a melded physical and virtual world. They must continually adapt to new ways of work and possess essential human skills that cannot be replicated by machines, AI, algorithms, or a robot. And they must add value as a continuous state to solve problems that have not been identified. These things combined will prepare them for the future of work. This is a tall order for them, and for the Academy.

Western New England University—a National University—provides powerful preparation for the future of work to its students. WNE prepares learners and earners for the Future of Work, equipping them to create value and thrive in a complex and hyperconnected world.

WNE delivers on this proposition through the “three pillars” of Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work: A New Traditional University, An Agile Mind Education, and Personal Exploration and Growth.

As a New Traditional University (the model), WNE embraces a distinctive and innovative institutional model that is responsive to the future. It honors the best in traditional education while invigorated by the challenges of the future. By providing an agile mind education (the curriculum), WNE prepares graduates to adapt and thrive, by equipping students to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Agile mind education will define success in the Future of Work. By providing opportunities for personal exploration and growth (the student experience), via continuous, transformational learning, helping students discover their “why” and animate their unique value propositions and find their place in the world.

WNE is the only institution in the country that is a National University providing powerful preparation for the future of work that is a New Traditional University and provides students with an Agile Mind Education and opportunities for Personal Exploration and Growth.

What is meant by learners and earners?

WNE prepares learners and earners with Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work, equipping them to create value and thrive in a complex and hyperconnected world. To succeed in the future, learning must be continuous and lifelong, which blurs the line between learning and earning. It is increasingly less common for our lives to be blocked out into discrete periods of time for learning exclusively and earning exclusively. They often occur concurrently and frequently are bundled with managing the plethora of other life responsibilities. 

Alumni, who will have upwards of 15 jobs in five different industries—three of which do not yet exist, will be learning and earning synchronously. Full-time students entering directly from high school, graduate or law students seeking degrees at any age, and practically anyone else who wishes to benefit from higher education at some point in life, may well be learning and earning concurrently. Modalities—the delivery method of learning—may need to change to accommodate students’ specific needs, responsibilities, and schedules, but that is our responsibility as agile higher education institutions.

The experiences that comprise powerful preparation for the future of work are essential for those seeking to start their career, advance within their current career, or aspire to re-invent themselves in a new career. Mid-career workers benefit from gaining necessary skillsets and mindsets to adapt to the future of work since change can emerge quickly around them, gain traction while they are busy performing their jobs as before, and can be profoundly disruptive if they are not prepared. 

I hope that my thoughts on how we might powerfully prepare learners and earners for the future of work, which I have shared here, spur you to innovate and to add value in your own pursuits. In my next blogs, I will explore in detail each of the three pillars upon which our ability to powerfully prepare for the future of work rests. As a lifelong learner, I value your feedback and seek to gain new insights from our future interactions. Thank you.

Robert E. Johnson, PhD

Dr. Robert E. Johnson was appointed as the 6th president of Western New England University in August 2020, charged with leading the institution as it embarks on its second century.