Innovation at the forefront: CTE & the future of work

A major transformation is taking place in America’s workplaces. The National Science Foundation calls it the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier — a future that is driven by combinations of machine learning, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and robotics. Today’s students will need new sets of skills, knowledge and dispositions to succeed in workplaces where technologies partner with humans in the problem-solving process. The career and technical education (CTE) community gives students a head start in preparing for the future of work. But one key challenge involves predicting the multiple directions in which the workplace is heading and reconfiguring CTE to keep pace. In this article, we provide a glimpse of the changing world of work shared by industry specialists in high-tech fields, and we spotlight strategies the CTE community can use to prepare students to thrive in that world.

The shifting landscape

At Education Development Center (EDC), researchers and practitioners explore what it will take for our students to succeed in work at the human-technology frontier. To better understand the future of work and the intersection between humans and technology, we asked experts in high-tech firms, national defense, aeronautical engineering and space travel:

“What does work look like at the human-technology frontier and what skills, knowledge and dispositions do you look for in employees?”

These specialists shared the following characteristics of workplaces at the human-technology frontier:

  1. Convergence of technologies and disciplines will bring about a predominance of dynamic, interdisciplinary teams, with members contributing deep content knowledge, technical skills and synthesis while people move fluidly in and out of projects.
  2. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will enable machines to “understand” complexities more quickly than humans. AI will touch every aspect of our lives. At work, AI will become part of every major project.
  3. Continuous streams of data between and among humans and machines will require skills in synthesis, analysis and interpretation of relationships among data sets. Data publicly available within minutes of capture will accelerate the pace of innovation and change.
  4. Design and systems thinking will provide a common language and process for engineers and team members from other disciplines to define a problem and develop solutions.
  5. As both humans and machines evolve, the boundaries will continue to blur. Machines will become partners with humans in the problem-solving process, not merely tools.
  6. With the power of technology at our fingertips, “computational thinking” will predominate the workplace.

In addition to these characteristics, experts highlighted:

  • The importance of cybersecurity
  • Education and training emphasis on solving authentic real-world problems
  • An ongoing focus on lifelong learning and learning to learn
  • The importance of ethics in understanding unintended consequences

Strategies to prepare students for the human-technology frontier

Our EDC team interviewed CTE educators to identify actions taken to reshape education. What do they do to prepare students for the future of work? They shared strategies used to build students’ skills and dispositions in key areas described by the industry specialists:

  • Interdisciplinary teamwork
  • Design and systems thinking
  • Lifelong learning
  • Real-world problem solving

Many of the strategies build students’ skills in multiple areas simultaneously.

Interdisciplinary teamwork

At Florida’s Spruce Creek High School, the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics’ (AITR) project-based curriculum demands versatility, flexibility and collaboration. Partnering with Teledyne Marine, an underwater telecommunications manufacturer, teams of students develop improved manufacturing processes.

Teacher Janet Cunningham said, “This type of curriculum fosters teamwork and collaboration to build employability skills” while also meeting state standards.

Design and systems thinking

Elk Grove Unified School District (California) uses Ford NGL’s Community Connected Learning framework, developed in partnership with EDC, to teach students how to use design thinking, systems thinking and project management to unpack and solve local challenges.

“These skills are key,” said Sue Hubbard, a district program specialist. “Students have to practice empathy, do environmental scans, determine who stakeholders are, what the environmental impact is. They have to look at data and develop a potential solution that might address the problem. That’s how innovation happens.”

Lifelong learning

Grand Island Public Schools (Nebraska) takes an innovative approach to preparing their students for a lifetime of learning. Students in their freshman academy develop a learning plan for the next 10 years.

“Their learning doesn’t stop after they finish with us, or after a degree,” said Daniel Phillips, director of innovation for college and career readiness. “The plan they build is a living document.” As students progress through their education, “they can document and reflect on those experiences.”

Real-world problem solving

Several of the leaders we spoke with sustain strong collaborations with community and industry partners to provide students with opportunities. These partnerships also help educators stay current with the evolving skills, training and competencies that students need to succeed in the workplace.

Look ahead, and stay flexible.

While these strategies seem promising, the leaders we interviewed remain realistic about their ability to predict the future. “Students can learn skills and train for jobs,” said Hubbard, “but we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to stay flexible.”

Let Joyce Malyn-Smith, a data-driven futurist, set the stage: There’s a revolution in the workforce looming. Learn more and register to attend ACTE’s CTE Innovation Summit on June 1. 

Joyce Malyn-Smith, Ed.D., is a distinguished scholar at Education Development Center and is a national expert on STEM career development and workforce education. Email her.

Jessica Juliuson is an EDC senior training and technical assistance associate. She cultivates strategic partnerships among schools, communities, and industry to enhance outcomes for youth. Email her.

Sarah MacGillivray is a project associate at EDC. She specializes in providing technical assistance and communications support to a variety of projects on equity, workforce development and STEM. Email her.

This article originally appeared in Techniques January 2020 print issue. ACTE members can read archived print issues online.