INDIANAPOLIS — An audience of about 200 educators and business representatives had just seen a video about the future of American jobs.
The video featured computers performing tasks ranging from the preparation of McDonald’s burgers to Roomba-like machines scampering around a warehouse to fill orders.
The three-minute video was accompanied only by synthesized music; no humans, no voices.
“I don’t know what was going through your minds when you were watching that video,” began Chris LaMothe, chair of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. “But I was gulping a little bit because that’s happening now.
“The impact on education, the impact on what students need to learn is going to be really remarkably different five to 10 years from now. And sooner.”
Earlier this week, LaMothe and Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers opened the annual H. Kent Weldon Conference for Higher Education addressing ways for colleges and businesses to prepare students for the job market.
Changes are coming “scarily fast,” LaMothe said. Employees will need communication skills, leadership qualities and a passion for their job, among other traits, he said.
The conference came one day after Lubbers delivered her annual State of Higher Education speech, where she confronted perceptions that confidence is diminishing in the value of post-secondary degrees.
Higher education is evolving and will involve more lifelong learning for workers to keep current with the jobs or advance their careers.
“It’s a fair expectation that higher education should provide more intentional career counseling and work-based learning opportunities that will, in fact, lead to better jobs and lives,” she said.
Those services, Lubbers said, need to expand to older adults as well as 18- to 22-year-old students.
At the conference, speakers tried to pinpoint the relevancy of higher education in addressing workforce needs and the pressure on young adults in filling changing job requirements.
“They’re also aware of the trends that it’s going to be harder for those kids to match the income of their parents,” said keynote speaker Scott Carlson, who has written about the future workforce for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“If you’re born at the upper end of the economic spectrum, chances are you will meet or surpass what your parents earned. If you’re born at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, it’s very unlikely that you will move to the upper percentiles,” Carlson said.
Adding to the stress of seeking entry work, he said, is uncertainty over future job markets. For example, he said, 4 million to 6 million jobs are tied into jobs requiring driving, a field to be affected by autonomous vehicles.
“We can’t predict the future specifically but we can some sense of what college students need to enter the workplace but more importantly to enter their lives,” Carlson added.
Panelists urged cooperative efforts between colleges and corporations.
“Higher education, what we really need right now is emphasis on the critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills. That’s No. 1. And not just the theoretical but more practical experience,” said Tom Easterday, Senior Executive Vice President for Subaru of Indiana Automotive.
“The second thing is communication skills and teamwork skills, particularly with regard to projects. People need to be able to communicate in a group, not just individually, not just through texting.”
Easterday encouraged higher education institutions to create internships and partnerships with corporations to provide students with hands-on experiences. Subaru partnered with Vincennes University to offer a class with two days in a classroom onsite at Subaru and three days working with a manufacturing mentor.
Self-starters who have integrity help drive innovation, said Pete Bitar, founder and CEO of AirBuoyant LLC, a small developer of aerospace technology in Anderson.
“I meet a lot of kids and young adults that come out of school and don’t have just that basic ability to look you in the eye and communicate with you well but then also to think beyond what you’re saying and sort of have a vision of their own,” Bitar said.
“There are increasing pressures on higher education at a time when we need to perform more services for students, particularly students from populations that haven’t been well served by higher education in the past,” Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns said.
A day earlier, Lubbers noted that some progress had been made in creating greater equity between minority students and their peers. The commission hopes to close that gap by two-thirds by 2025, she said.
A leading factor is minority students who are unable to stay in college between the first and second year. She urged a more comprehensive support system for at-risk students.