Solving Underemployment: Michelle Weise of Strada Education Discusses the Importance of Lifelong Learning to Help Workers Attain Gainful Employment
The path to a fulfilling, well-paying career isn’t always easy. But as humans live longer and retire later, what will the career-span of an average worker look like?
According to Michelle Weise, Senior Vice President of workforce strategies at Strada Education, studies are showing that the first people to live to 150 years old have already been born—and a 150-year lifespan will change the average working lifespan exponentially.
Michelle Weise argues that, “with that kind of lens, suddenly two, four, or six years of learning on the front-end of a 100 year work life sounds deeply inadequate, you know, to to last us that kind of lifetime. And so, we’re really going to have to retool ourselves or upskill ourselves for the future of work.”
Because of this need for retooling, Michelle says that those who graduate higher education and start out underemployed can stay that way for years.
“It actually matters a lot, that first job. It can actually have long term effects and and really put you on a path that can affect you for up to 10 years,” she says.
Listen in to our interview with Michelle Weise to learn more about why postsecondary institutions need to engage students and working learners differently for them to access continuous success in the workforce.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech times. And today we’re speaking with Michelle Weise of Strada Education. Michelle is a featured speaker at EdTech Times’ work+EDU event. Michelle could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about Strada Education.
Michelle Weise: Sure. I’m the senior vice president of workforce strategies at Strada Education Network, and the chief innovation officer of Strada Institute for the Future of Work. Strada is a nonprofit public charity that is dedicated to improving lives by catalyzing more direct and promising pathways between education and employment. It’s all part of what we call completion with a purpose. That’s our mission.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Thank you. So, you and I first connected actually over Twitter after I read your article in Edsurge. The focus of that article was designing the learning ecosystems of the future. So, in that article you spoke to a number of rising trends that are impacting people’s lives in terms of work and education. So, why don’t we start by talking about a few of those rising trends that you described in your article.
Michelle Weise: Yeah. Many of us, I think, have heard of Moore’s law. And this is just the law that tells us that the rate of computing power is doubling every two years. And so, as we think about these advancements in technology are these exponential changes in technology, I think what’s different today is that we all are really starting to feel the velocity of that change. And we see it occurring through these advancements in machine learning and deep learning.
Michelle Weise: It’s a real kind of evolution of just this notion of artificial intelligence. And as a result, you’re seeing all these kind of doomsday and crazy forecasts out there. I think Oxford Martin program projects that 47 percent of the jobs in the U.S. workforce are at risk of automation. I think McKinsey has a number, where they think half of the activities that are associated with 15 trillion dollars in wages in the global economy will potentially also become automated or computerized.
Michelle Weise: And then, so you take these kinds of projections and then you mix it with what we’re seeing today, which is that some of the hottest jobs out there, and some of the most popular and prevalent jobs out there are things that just really didn’t exist 10 years prior. And these are things like social media intern, iOS or Android developer, UI/UX designer, big data architect—those kinds of things. And then you mix that with one of the most fascinating pieces of information that I’ve encountered, which is that futurists and experts on aging and longevity are now saying that the first people to live to be 150 years old have already been born.
Michelle Weise: And so what this means is that we are all going to be facing potentially longer and more turbulent work lives. The question is then becoming: how many new jobs that don’t exist today will a person have during a potentially 150 year lifespan? And so, with that kind of lens—suddenly two, four, six years of learning on the front end of a 100 year work life sounds deeply inadequate, you know, to last us that that kind of lifetime. And so we’re really going to have to retool ourselves or upscale ourselves for the future of work.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. So, you’ve just dropped a lot of big news and stats on the audience here. I mean the idea that close to 50 percent of jobs at risk through automation, the longevity question, how long will our work lives actually last. And of course that does circle around on, you know, what postsecondary education and secondary education look like right now and how are they preparing us for the jobs of today. How will they prepare us for the jobs of tomorrow? So, when you look at, and let’s focus on postsecondary education here. When you look at postsecondary education about sustainability for that industry, taken into account everything that we’ve just talked about, I mean what do you see as what what’s the most ripe for change within postsecondary education?
Michelle Weise: I think the best way to think about it is that one of the biggest vulnerabilities for colleges and universities today — and this is partly because the vast majority of our, you know, 4,700 four-year-degree-granting institutions are trying to be so many different things for so many different kinds of people. We are not as focused and we’re not doing a great job on the critical handoff between education and work. You often hear leaders of colleges and universities saying things like, we’re not preparing students for their first job, but for a career, for lifelong learning. And there’s a sense that experimentation and drift are really part of the early phases of career discovery.
Michelle Weise: We’re actually doing research right now on underemployment and the results are actually quite startling. It actually matters a lot, that first job, it can actually have long-term effects and and really put you on a path that can affect you for up to 10 years. We’re seeing the kind of longitudinal data play out, where if you start out underemployed, you are likely to remain underemployed five and 10 years out. So it’s not a short-term problem. It’s a long-term problem that we really, really need to focus on. And so that critical handoff is the place where we really need to kind of re-examine what we’re doing. I think we have to really integrate better advising earlier on for students.
Michelle Weise: So, I’ll parse my remarks into sort of two buckets. The first part is more directed toward the traditional sort of 17 to 22 year old college-going population. And then I think my remarks would kind of alter slightly for an older, working learner crowd. But for those who are going to a four year degree granting institution—that handoff can’t just occur in a student’s senior year or final year of learning, right? We need to make sure that students on the front end of that four, six year experience are really studying the things that align with their career choices and their passions.
Michelle Weise: As vital and as important as a broad-based learning experience like a liberal arts degree is, we are also seeing more and more research come out that says that we need to augment and add on and embed skills and proficiencies that are really demanded and desirable in the workforce, to launch these students off into the right trajectory. And we’re just really not doing that. And so I think there’s a real opportunity there for us to do better. Because our currently enrolled students are really worried.
Michelle Weise: We’ve been actually doing a ton of consumer insights research over the last two and a half years with Gallup, where we’ve interviewed over 250,000 Americans. And out of those we talk to currently enrolled students and only 36 percent of them feel prepared for the workforce. So, only a third of our currently enrolled students, close to a third, are really feeling like they’re going to be OK. 40 percent of our liberal arts majors don’t feel like their major will lead to a good job. So there’s work to be done there.
Michelle Weise: On the side of our adult learner population—we really need to start figuring out much more seamless and flexible pathways for our working learners. If we really are serious about upskilling them into opportunities for that future of work, we are not great at offering flexible pathways. So, if you think about even our most innovative offerings out there today, in online education or online competency-based education allying to workforce needs, or even all these interesting immersive boot camps out there, they’re still not flexible enough. They still don’t take into account all the things that get in the way of the pursuit of a degree. For someone who is not that 17 to 22 year old who can, you know, immerse themselves in a residential campus experience.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, a big piece of this, obviously, is adult learners whose jobs have shifted, become automated. What are some ideas or some strategies that successful institutions for example, and maybe that’s a traditional higher ed institution or maybe that’s more of the boot camp or alternative credential variety. But how are some of those organizations reshaping those lifelong learning opportunities so that they are more flexible pathways, as you’re discussing?
Michelle Weise: Yeah, I think we’re seeing that in some of the forward thinking institutions that are trying to create real robust partnerships with employers. So that while someone is on the job they can also be trying to work towards a certificate or a credential. But a lot of our colleges and universities are also trying to figure out how to help learners navigate and identify pathways out there for themselves that maybe they haven’t envisioned for themselves ever. And part of the experimentation going on is with how do we assess prior learning? How do we assess someone’s work experience and help them understand who they are today, in order to map to where they want to be tomorrow. I think one of the gaps in higher ed is that we aren’t great at assessment. So, we don’t have the greatest competency mapping tools to help our adult learners today within higher ed, when it comes to making what for most people will be one of the largest investments of their lifetime.
Michelle Weise: Prospective college students or working learners who are thinking about returning to learning, have really very little information that could help guide that decision-making process. We have to imagine that there will be some sort of way in which more insights and more data is going to get to the students. We need better information out there. Because if most of us before attending college had read some sort of, you know, Yelp review for an associate’s degree, we might not have gone if we had known only one in five graduates earn a two year degree in six years. There’s actually been a study that came out recently where some associates degrees actually result in a wage penalty when compared to associates degrees in technical fields. And we don’t have any of this kind of information out there today.
Michelle Weise: So, if there is an adult learner who is seeing their career plateau, and they’re thinking about how to transition into something new. There’s very little to like help them understand what kinds of maybe short-term or short bursts of learning they can go to. What kinds of alternative learning providers are out there that really do have meaningful learning outcomes. We don’t help our fellow citizens make well-informed decisions. And we all sort of deserve more transparency about the outcomes of whatever post-secondary learning experience we decide to pursue.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I really like what you’re saying about the idea of a marketplace for learners to understand the return on that investment that they’re making. You’ve mentioned a lot of research that you’re doing already with GallUp. So, tell us a little bit about your institute on the future of work.
Michelle Weise: Yeah. Our institute is really dedicated to understanding better all these projections that are out there about the future of work. In order to then understand how learning will have to transform to meet the needs of our adult learners in particular for that workforce of the future. We really want to, you know, help design and build that learning ecosystem in the future. We really want to identify promising solutions for working adults. And then ultimately inform all of our mission impact investments across the Strada organization as a whole, which is focused on transforming these educational pathways for working learners. And so, in this research, where we’re trying to move from theory to practice, we are really trying to understand understand, where are the opportunities to really do more when it comes to lifelong learning? We actually don’t do a whole lot to invest in the system—the basic systems, the architecture, the infrastructure needed to facilitate more seamless movements in and out of learning and work.
Michelle Weise: We want to change this and sort of translate that talk into action. And think specifically about this growing new traditional student population that is, you know, over the age of 25 and looking to transition into or within the workforce. And so we are doing a lot of collaboration with other future work initiatives out there. We’re not thinking we’re here to reinvent the wheel. There’s also a ton of research that has been done already on the future of work by brilliant chief economists. And we want to synthesize some of that work, and get these insights and learnings into the hands of adult learners themselves. With all these turbulent changes and unpredictable changes of job obsolescence and automation, we know that we will ultimately all have to kind of rescale ourselves, you know, in our work lives. And higher education just simply doesn’t offer those on and off ramps in and out of learning and work. And our systems are just not set up well to help people navigate just-in-time learning pathways.
Michelle Weise: And that’s really the area in which we want to explore. Like, what is it that motivates a working learner to pursue and advance their learning? And how can we then begin to build some of the systems, the support services?
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, let’s circle back around the work+EDU event. It’s coming up on June the 20th here in Boston. And at that event you’ll have the opportunity to speak with employers in some of the fastest growing industries: healthcare, technology and advanced manufacturing. We will have leaders from postsecondary and secondary education, as well as Workforce Investment Board leaders and other, you know, talent recruitment agencies. So, what are you going to be talking about with this audience next month?
Michelle Weise: Well, precisely these topics that we are just discussing. Really, how postsecondary learning will have to engage students differently than ever before. I think the core takeaway is that what we are doing today as higher education 2018, we can’t just extrapolate from where we are to meet the needs of the workforce of 2030 or 2040. We’re going to have to do something dramatically different. And hopefully the talk will spur us into action instead of letting us just continue to admire the problem.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, we’re looking forward to hearing you speak at Work+EDU. And I want to say, thank you for your time today, Michelle. It’s been great talking with you.
Michelle Weise: Thanks so much Hester, I’m looking forward to the event.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Commonwealth Corporation, Massachusetts’ public-private corporation focused on narrowing the skills gap and supporting the state’s businesses, workers, and learners.
To learn more about Commonwealth Corporation’s grant programs and Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on Digital Innovation and Lifelong Learning, visit commcorp.org.
See Michelle Weise speak at work+EDU, an action-based event hosted by EdTech Times, happening in Boston June 20, 2018.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.