Conversations About the Future

Adaptation. Header image

From time to time I am asked, “What keeps you up at night?”

The answer is not what people generally expect. My thoughts constantly churn on the myriad of professional pathways that lie ahead for our graduates and how they might be affected by significant changes in automation, computerization and artificial intelligence. Futurists tell us that the nature of work will change dramatically over the next 20 years, well within the career scope of our recent and anticipated graduates.

At every opportunity, I speak with leaders of large and small businesses and public and private institutions. I read much about the future of work, but there is no substitute for talking to those hiring today and anticipating the workforce’s needs of the future.

Based on these conversations, the best advice I can give students is: “Avoid the risk of majoring in a job title.” Odds are that the role as they are thinking about it now won’t last long enough to support an extended career interest. Sometimes I think students should major in a new professional field I call “Adaptation.” More than any other skill, the need to adapt will be an essential element in every career.

Yet some aspects of work that have been less emphasized by parents and policymakers in recent years are staging a comeback. I recently spoke with an executive from a large technology firm that employs engineers. He is involved in hiring and managing engineers and has done so for more than 20 years. I asked him, “What are you looking for as you hire engineers?” He answered without hesitation: “Humble, hungry and people smart.” I nearly fell off my chair. He repeated that phrase, which sounded to me like a mantra. I asked him, “Have you ever fired an engineer who was not humble, hungry and people smart?” He replied with a decisive, “Yes.”

I then asked, “Have you ever fired an engineer for not having sufficient skills in mathematics?” He told me that had never happened. He shared that what distinguishes engineers is not their technical abilities. Instead, it’s their capacity to be energetic and creative, to work in teams and to work with colleagues in other countries and from other backgrounds. While he reluctantly referred to these as “soft skills,” he indicated that these skills are as important to a successful career in the technology field as are the so-called “hard skills.”

Earlier this year I was enjoying a dinner at a professional conference with a lawyer from a large legal firm. Eventually, the conversation turned to the future of work. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I asserted to my new lawyer friend that automation and artificial intelligence would certainly not affect the legal profession in any meaningful way, thinking that I had identified a professional field that is relatively impervious to technological change. The stunned look on his face was amplified by his direct response. I was completely wrong. He noted that he is a partner at his firm and has many large corporate clients. An increasing number of this firm’s corporate clients will not pay the fees associated with a human lawyer reviewing corporate contracts. Instead, they use a software program that learns through pattern recognition the essential elements of a valid contract. When a contract is presented, the software “reads” and validates the contract, saving the client money. Lawyers perform other tasks that require novel thinking and creativity.

At another dinner (I do a lot of dinners), one of my table companions identified herself as a corporate recruiter for a large firm in a large city. She said to me, “I’d bet you’d be interested to know something about how we screen applicants for positions.” I listened with great interest. She told me that applicants do not get through her to the next level unless they can write and speak well. She indicated that her company uses this as a proxy for many characteristics since to write and speak well is suggestive of other strengths. This practice was not limited to positions that required writing skills, but was applicable to all positions for which they recruit in the corporation.

There’s a theme here. I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Wanted: Experts at Soft Skills.” The article describes the kind of corporate training used today to enhance human interaction through training in empathy skills. They are learning skills a computer cannot replace to maximize the personal relationship with clients. The PBS NewsHour recently had a segment with the title, “How These Humanities Graduates are Finding Jobs in Silicon Valley.” The piece reviewed both employees and entrepreneurs whose undergraduate degrees are in philosophy, art history, dance and English. Coupled with technology skills, these individuals are playing vital roles in the technology industry.

We like things to be simple. The problem is the world is not cooperating. We will be awash in complexity and change at an accelerating rate for many years to come. The skills of the future certainly involve technical and professional competence, but to be competitive our graduates will need to be energetic, have a strong work ethic, understand human difference and diversity, think creatively and critically, communicate effectively, appreciate context and nuance and be people of high character.

This sounds a lot like the mission of Central College.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



2 responses to Conversations About the Future

Hiram K Evans says:

Interesting observation; on one of my first trips back to Central after beginning a career as a forensic scientist, I noted to students that I didn’t think I was a very good chemist, if CUI grades were any indication of proficiency, but thought I had gotten jobs based on an ability to “coordinate, subordinate, and conjugate,” as a post-CUI professor had described it, both verbally and in writing. Not the hard science skill, but the soft one…

That said, much of fingerprint and DNA analysis has been automated; presenting expert testimony, either as a written report or in court has NOT.

Dear Mark,
Thanks so much for this piece. I’ve been asked to do a presentation for our graduate students in Museum Studies about Professional behavior and attire next month.
As a fashion historian I have the attire part down, but these words echo the need one of my colleagues shared in educating our graduates about professional behavior–the soft skills.
I appreciate your efforts to train Central graduates to be prepared in the work place. Mina Baker and Vivian Rippentrop prepared me well to be a good Home Ec. Teacher. I found I was far better prepared than my colleagues who had attended large Pennsylvania state schools.
I wish you well as you keep up the good work,
Marian Ann J. Montgomery (nee Matwiejczyk, Central Class of 1977)