I’ve been a teacher for 20 years. On day one of each new school year, the first conversation I hold with my students is about education. I start by saying, “Education is important; it will prepare you for a career.” I choose this topic to instill hope in my students that all their work in school will pay off.
American schools have cycled millions of students through classrooms into the workforce. But more important, schools are a doorway for opening up young minds to a world of possibilities.
As companies increasingly introduce digital machines into production, workers must hone new skills for the tools of industry. While the speed of school systems to harmonize instruction to a changing economy is often glacial, teachers and education leaders have found creative ways to adjust. New programs that support science and math, computer science, and robot design are sprouting up in innovative high schools and classrooms across the country.
Although a drumbeat of criticism would have you believe that high schools are “failing” to prepare students for the workplace, graduates are finding jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for high school graduates declined from 11 percent in 2009 to 7.7 percent in January of this year. While this was still above the national average of 4.8 percent in January, the downward trend gives a reason to be optimistic about the ability of high schools to prepare students to get a job in the 21st-century economy.
Over the last year or so, there’s been an acceleration in the stream of headlines in the business press tracking the growing trend of automation and robots doing tasks once carried out by people. The recent purchase of Whole Foods by the mega-online retailer Amazon, renowned for its automated warehousesand workerless grocery stores, has awakened fresh concerns over the elimination of entire job categories and a growing army of unemployable people.
Whether these concerns prove well-founded remains to be seen, but the acquisition underscores the powerful headwinds workers will face in the near future. According to a 2015 study from Citi Research and the Oxford Martin School in 2015, up to 47 percent of current U.S. employment is at risk of being automated.
With that fact in mind, I struggled with what I should tell my students as this new school year began. While I am professionally bound to encourage students to strive for a career, I am ethically obligated to explain the challenges they may face in being gainfully employed.
On the first day of class, I had my annual conversation with my students about the importance of an education to reach their career goals. However, I am already anticipating what I will say if one of my new students asks me, “Mr. Hangan, what’s a good career I should pursue?” As Amazon sets a new standard for the workplace by automating more work in the future, I will just have to say, “Hmmm, that’s a great question.”