Education To Make a Living and Create a Better Life after COVID-19

The impact that COVID-19 has had on the global economy has translated to a deep anxiety about our future livelihoods. Yet, the impact on individuals has not been equal: The immediate shifts in the hospitality and retail industries, the move to remote work, and the drive by employers to automate processes have impacted low-wage workers far more than higher paid workers. In many ways the pandemic has accelerated a deepening divide along class lines.

The proposed solutions to re-employing those who have lost their jobs often include some form of training or education. Some of the solutions have called for more skills-based training, apprenticeships, and employer-based training solutions. These are certainly valuable and much-needed approaches. At the same time the perceived value of traditional postsecondary education (i.e., the associate or baccalaureate degree) has dropped considerably. This is very much an “either-or” model that has also accelerated as a result of the immediate pandemic crisis.

However, the pandemic will pass, and our future is calling us to move beyond “either-or” thinking and instead create a new model of postsecondary education that combines the optimum combination of outcomes focusing on earning a living as well as creating a life–at
time when the future of work is changing dramatically. In the future, “good jobs” will necessitate more skills-based education as well as those higher level competencies such as critical thinking, clear communication, problem solving, team building, and ethical decision making–important for
work, yes, but also important for creating a good life, as argued in a 2016 white paper “Bread and Roses: Helping Students Make a Good Living and Live a Good Life,” by Terry O’Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

If we are going to move past this pandemic in a way that provides ongoing equal opportunity and social mobility for a greater number of individuals, we must break down the artificial distinctions among work and learning, as well as between skills and high order thinking. A recently published book by Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, entitled “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines” makes this argument eloquently. He argues that we need to rethink the value of “work” to the individual human being. Work is more than a job to most–it also provides opportunities to learn and serve, as well as earn. In fact, Merisotis is arguing that as we plan for the work of the future, we should place humans at the center of the equation, not only on the outcomes of the institutions that surround them.

This necessarily means that employers, institutions of higher education, and workforce development and training organizations must come together not simply to collaborate, but to synthesize powerful new approaches to learning, earning, and serving the greater good. And together we need to create a new working and learning model for the new “normal,” which demands a more integrated working and learning model across a longer career and lifespan.

We must embrace the need for all working learners to continuously earn and learn, so that they are not stranded again during the next major disruption. As Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley noted in their recent book, The Adaptation Advantage, we must prepare for a future of
disruptive changes, and help all working learners “surf” those waves of change. Learning is part and parcel of a successful life, and we need to create new structures and systems to make lifelong learning easier to access for all.

Let me be clear: I am calling for breaking down the artificial distinction between vocational education (often intended for the mass of ‘workers’) and liberal arts education (intended for the ‘elites”) to better serve all individuals. All learners work, and all workers must learn in this new
world; therefore, all learners/earners need the skills to succeed in particular jobs and also need a broader education to enable them to navigate, explore, and impact the larger world. Our future
calls for “both/and” not “either/or” thinking.

At a time when we need skills-based training as well as higher-level thinking, we can no longer think of education as “one and done.” The vertical view of “higher education” with only some elites qualifying for the highest levels no longer serves us. Lives are longer, careers are longer,
and few jobs exist that require no postsecondary education. We no longer stay in one job for a lifetime–we need to combine work and learning over a longer life and career.

Written for OEB20 by Marie A. Cini, Ph.D. Chief Strategy Officer ED2WORK and Keynote speaker at the Annual OEB Global Debate.

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