Published on 2019/05/14

Gretzky’s Puck: A Human Capital Strategy for the 21st Century

The EvoLLLution | Gretzky’s Puck: A Human Capital Strategy for the 21st Century
Creating a lifelong learning ecosystem designed to help people stay flexible and agile enough to keep up with industry shifts is central to a successful labor market and a productive economy.

Wayne Gretzky—arguably ice hockey’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)—likes to say that his success as a hockey player didn’t come from skating to the puck, but to where the puck was going. He could anticipate and respond to changes in a fast-paced, highly unpredictable game before they actually happened.

It’s an ideal that educators, employers and students should all be striving for. Like hockey, skill needs change rapidly and it’s up to higher education to help workers and employers adapt to those changes.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning—the capacity of algorithm-driven programs to self-modify in the face of new data sources and analytical challenges—are accelerating the “creative destruction” of the U.S. and global economies.

And we aren’t talking just about manufacturing, either. Everything from harvesting delicate fruits and vegetables to tax preparation, accounting, paralegal work and medical diagnostics is being automated. Machine learning is even putting some high-tech jobs in jeopardy. Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 10% and 45% of all jobs are potentially susceptible to automation. Even at the low end, that degree of job destruction would be massively disruptive to millions of American workers.

Other schools of thought argue that while entire job categories won’t be wiped out, the skill mix required will be altered as human and machine labor are integrated. Robots may not become our overlords, but they will definitely be our co-workers, and like any co-worker they will occasionally be troublesome and annoying—as well as indispensable.

The bottom line is that we don’t know where the puck is going, but it is going to get there faster than ever before. Technology is zigging; we need to zag.

Improving the odds of future labor market success depends on getting better on our skates (working on speed and agility) and honing our stick-handling skills (acquiring strong basic and specific skills). Across the education and workforce continuum, students, workers, educators and employers should focus helping students and workers to become more flexible and adaptable to changing demands. Such a worker would have three key bundles of attributes:

1. Excellent Basic Skills

In an economy dominated by information and data, the ability to read and synthesize information—text and numbers—will be more vital than ever. Literacy and numeracy need to be built from the ground up. Just because a search engine, calculator or spreadsheet can do the work faster and better doesn’t relieve us from the need to build persuasive arguments or understand how logic and numbers work. Further, since the technology for amassing and analyzing information is increasingly being automated, the premium will be on comprehension: What does the information mean, and how can it generate value? Basic skills feed the process of creative perception.

2. Technological Literacy

More than half of STEM degree holders leave their professions within 10 years, a phenomenon driven by technological change and declining wage premiums. We may not need as many programmers in the future but we will need people who know how to use the programs. All workers will need to be primed to stay current with emerging innovations. “Lifelong learning” has been a slogan for 20 years; it needs to become a lived reality.

Employers have an important role to play. It isn’t good enough, or even fair, to simply replace older workers with younger, nimbler and more technologically advanced employees. Employers and workers both need to invest in up-skilling. A reciprocal approach to job-based learning is not just the right and humane thing to do but a practice that can help build workforce loyalty and reduce churn.

3. Non-Cognitive or “Soft” Skills

Don’t go head-to-head with computers at the repetitive, pattern-based tasks they do best. Instead, focus on attributes and skills that are distinctively human: empathy, compassion, teamwork, collaboration, intuition and creativity. These are the skills that employers say are most needed and in shortest supply. They are also the hardest to automate. Soft-skills are the sum of all competencies, equipping individuals with the ability and habits required to learn and grow.

Defining a Future Path

The challenges and strategies outlined above are most daunting for those at the margins of society and the economy. This is especially true of non-cognitive skills, which are rooted in infancy and early childhood. As my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Katharine Stevens likes to say, the brains of infants and young children are like wet cement—they yield easily to the touch. While the brain retains substantial capacity for change and growth later in life, it becomes harder and more expensive to learn as we grow older. We will be doing low-income families and American society an enormous favor if we invest early in building the non-cognitive capacities that are the foundation of a satisfying life, including fulfilling jobs and careers.

Gretzky’s Puck boils down to one simple rule: The future is unknowable. In light of this blurry reality, the best we can do is build up a strong and flexible workforce that can skate to where the puck is going and be able to pivot as economic conditions and technologies change.

This sounds simple but would represent a sea-change in our human capital outlook. If we can pull it off, it is likely to be more than enough to equip workers with the skills they need to pay the bills.

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