Friday, March 5, 2010

Remaining Relevant

Welcome to my first official blog post for Charter Oak State College.  When I asked the staff what the best way to communicate with our students and alums might be, I was curious about the approach they would recommend.  I was ready for live chats, threaded discussions, even tweets, but their suggestion that I write a blog seems perfect to me because it takes me back to my roots.  I taught college writing for over 20 years—perhaps the most dreaded course after college math—and during those years I often wrote and published op-ed pieces, the blogs of that time.  Back then I was trying to practice what I was preaching to my students.  Today, I am trying to create a sense of community with our students.  So here I go again, sharing my thoughts and trying to do it with a little style.

The cover story of the September 21, 2009 issue of TIME focuses on America’s unemployment crisis.  In the story entitled “Unemployment Nation” Joshua Cooper Ramo references research by Lawrence Summers, director of the President’s National Economic Council and former president of Harvard (see how I worked another college president in there).  Summers writes about a concept called hysteresis, which refers to changes in the economy that are permanent.  We hear a great deal about economic cycles that move the market up and down and are all part of the business cycle, but hysteresis is the unpleasant idea that some changes in the marketplace are not part of a continuum; some changes are permanent.  The most famous example is the farming jobs that disappeared during the Great Depression and never returned.  Another is the large steel furnaces that formed one of the major industries in this country but that were replaced by mini furnaces decimating the economy of steel cities like Pittsburgh.

There is concern on a number of fronts that many of the American jobs that are disappearing in today’s recession will never return.  The auto industry may be one example, and another is mass manufacturing.  The answer will be clear in a few years, but in the meantime we have almost ten percent of the population looking for work.  So what is the country to do?

In a word, the answer is re-tool.  But it is not our technology that needs to be upgraded, it is our workforce.  We need to offer displaced workers training that prepares them for the employment that is available, and even more importantly, for the employment that WILL become available.  “But wait,” the discerning reader cries, “how can anyone know what jobs will be important in the emerging new economy.”

That’s a good question.  I, for one, don’t think it is impossible to see what those jobs will be like.  First, they will not be low knowledge, high touch jobs.  The new jobs will involve the following elements: creativity, independent initiative, critical thinking, quantitative analysis, information literacy, and adaptability.  They will be more like consulting jobs, where you are offering yourself as a key component in larger projects.  Work will be team based, and each of us will function on multiple teams simultaneously, sometimes in a leadership role and other times in a supporting role.

Does anything like that exist now? Well if you are a Charter Oak student, you know that your online courses require all of these traits. They require working in teams, communicating using internet technologies, self-direction (no boss looking over your shoulder), and multi-tasking (I am writing the first draft of this while babysitting for the neighbors kids). You can do your work from a variety of places, and your team consists of people from all over. Could it be that these online courses provide the model for what these new jobs will be like?

I will have more to say about preparing for the next economy in future blog posts, but if you are learning online you are already participating in the best model for that economy that higher education has developed. You might even say that your online courses are a simulation exercise that is preparing you for the jobs that WILL become available. So don’t complain about those team projects and don’t feel guilty for reading your favorite blog in between class assignments; you are just practicing for one of those 21st century jobs.