“As technology continues to advance, the line between soft and hard skills is disappearing. What matters is whether a skill is ‘human’ or can be performed by machines,” says Michelle Weise, Ph.D., chief innovation officer at Strada Institute for the Future of Work, a new research and development lab within Strada Education Network. “Our analysis of liberal arts graduates offers all disciplines a case study on how to future-proof workers: obliterating the false choice between technical and liberal arts education, and providing graduates with the tools they need to more effectively translate their skills to the world of work.”

The nature of work is changing rapidly. Technological changes—in particular advancements in machine learning and deep learning—have sparked alarmist predictions of massive job obsolescence. Even conservative estimates indicate that significant proportions of the work humans do today will be automated in the coming decade. At the same time, technological advancements will continue to give rise to entirely new types of jobs. Futurists estimate that up to 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

These sorts of projections tend to paralyze audiences, but it is worth noting that machines and humans already collaborate and will continue to coordinate even more closely in the future. From chatbots that lead into customer service calls to predictive analytics for students married to human coaching and advising, the world is already evolving into a robo-human future.

From their first to their third job, liberal arts graduates gravitate toward marketing careers.

Meanwhile, policymakers, educators, and employers are vigorously debating how best to prepare Americans for the future of work. There are those who believe that the “hard” skills of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are most critical to the future, and those who believe the uniquely “human” skills of the liberal arts are the ones that will endure in the face of automation. We say, “both, and”: It is the integration of human and technical skills that will provide the best preparation for the future of work.  

Indeed, most of the current literature on the future of work underscores this growing need for human skills such as flexibility, mental agility, ethics, resilience, systems thinking, communication, and critical thinking. Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun has devoted an entire book to the concept of “humanics”: “a new model of learning that enables learners to understand the highly technological world around them and that simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans—namely their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility.”

Liberal arts graduates earn a significant wage premium relative to high school graduates, and the half who go on to earn graduate degrees earn an average of $76,000 annually.

The skills needed now and for the future combine the technical with the human: programing + ethics, artificial intelligence (AI) + emotional intelligence, or logic + values or judgment. While employers are scrambling for this new talent, postsecondary education is falling behind. In spite of all the trends and forces reshaping the world of work, few colleges or universities are redesigning their educational models to keep pace with the future. As Stephanie Kasriel, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work laments: “And while some leading universities now offer courses on the gig economy or new technologies like the blockchain, it’s far from being the norm. The vast majority of high schools and colleges aren’t adapting quickly enough to the change, leaving their students increasingly unprepared for the job market.” Educators are out of step with the changing needs of the economy, which are being driven by advanced technology, such as AI, robotics, and data analytics.

But the future of work is now, and standing still is not an option. In order to shape the work of the future, organizations have a tremendous opportunity to redesign and cultivate this mindset of “both, and” earlier on in the learning process. It makes little sense to continue to pit a college education against workforce training, as if they are somehow mutually exclusive. The debates that separate a broad-based college experience from the professionalization of workforce training are tired. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences put it best in its report on the future of undergraduate education: “Today, the long-standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more applied postsecondary program presents a false choice.” The most valuable workers now and in the future will be those who can combine technical knowledge with human skills.

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