From education to employment

Rising with the robots – FE’s greatest challenge in the machine age

Chris McLean is Deputy Principal at Milton Keynes College

When was the last time you saw a science fiction film where the robots were entirely benevolent? From Terminator to the Daleks, from Hal in 2001 to the Borg in Star Trek, writers peering into the future have a bleak view of what artificial intelligence may bring.

Professor Stephen Hawking says;

The rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.

A study by McKinsey & Company predicts 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could soon be computerised while the Bank of England warns that eighty million American and fifteen million British jobs are at risk from robot domination. With that in mind, one has to question the value of continuing to prepare our students for the world of work as it stands today rather than as it will be in the future.

This is not a new fear. Exactly two hundred years ago men fearing the slashing of their wages or the extinction of their crafts and trades attacked the machines they believed were replacing them. Economists have argued about the impact of technology on employment ever since. Those who don’t believe it call it “The Luddite Fallacy.”

American Alex Taborrok says:

If the Luddite Fallacy were true we would all be out of work because productivity has been increasing for two centuries.

Those of Taborrok’s party believe employment isn’t destroyed by technology but transformed as the existence of the machines creates new, previously unimagined needs.

That AI will create new jobs with new skill sets is undoubtedly true even if we have no idea of how many and at what value.

Many will be around servicing the needs of the parts of society who will not be employed. At the bleakest this would be police, army etc., dealing with social unrest among the jobless half of the population. At the most positive it could be educators, entertainers, group leaders, engaged in a whole new world of living happily and productively, even if not in a recognisable economic sense.

We must begin to prepare.

The current education system encourages the learning of more and more about less and less.

This laser-pointed specialisation in a particular brand of knowledge is surely going to be of questionable value when a machine can be programmed with a greater level of learning in an afternoon than an individual could achieve in a lifetime. That isn’t to say learning is ever wasted, only that the paths to enlightenment and employment will become more divergent than ever.

If our students are to be among the lucky ones whose lives are enriched by work we have to provide them with other skills alongside their knowledge.

Today’s focus is on teaching them what they need to know to gain a qualification which opens the doors to a career. We need to rethink the outcomes hierarchy. Surely the ambition should be to give them the skills of flexibility, adaptability, resilience and those interpersonal skills of communication, empathy and understanding we so often hear described in desultory terms as, “Soft.” Indeed, might we not see the qualification as a vehicle for imparting those human skills rather than as the end in itself – learning how to learn, learning how to adapt?

We have already bid farewell to the concept of a job for life, now we must face the likelihood of people needing to switch between numerous careers. No sector of the economy will be unaffected. The use of machines in manufacturing is obvious, but what about a Customer Service Bot which never gets tired or cross and has all the relevant account information at its electronic fingertips, replacing a whole room filled with call centre workers?

Those who stay in work will be the ones who can change horses in midstream most easily. Lifelong learning will be the only way to stay in the game. Careers advice will have to include expert opinion on which industries have the longest lifespan as employers of people. At such a perilous point in the history of employment the impartial observer might expect investment in adult education – retraining for the new world – to be at an all-time high.

According to the government’s own figures, expenditure on adult education fell by 32% in cash terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16.  

Education should be the vehicle for bringing those made jobless or even economically inactive back into society. How will FE be the saviour of the untrained and the unemployed, transforming people into effective citizens (whatever that will mean) whose traditional societal roles have vanished? Colleges used to be bustling places at night. Milton Keynes College is now closed two nights a week because with the dwindling of state funding people cannot afford to take the opportunity to retrain. The number of adults enrolling at the College has fallen by almost two-thirds in five years.

Education used to be the way out of the poverty trap but now the trap itself precludes access to education and advancement. In previous years the College has seen two hundred nineteen year olds annually enrolling for Level 2 courses in practical disciplines where they were also taught some of the skills discussed above. Now they have no access to funding either.

At Milton Keynes College we are not just waiting for these changes to happen. 

We are working hard to reshape the very processes by which we educate, so that we can continue to provide the very best support possible for all our students. 

The exponential growth of online courses is just one example of this.  However, if people are to survive and thrive in the age of artificial intelligence, we need to invest now, not just in technology, but in the essential skills for those who will have to chart the course of a useful and fulfilled life in the spaces between the machines.

Chris McLean is Deputy Principal at Milton Keynes College

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