While listening to a story on public radio the other day about the plight of unemployed workforce members over 50 without more than a high school education, I was brought up short by the reality expressed by the commentator’s guest.

Asked about the opportunity for these workers to upgrade their education or retrain for a different occupation, the expert replied, “As I think about members of the workforce 50 and older, whose last experience with math was probably in high school, I find it hard to imagine them going back to school now.  There is too much catching up to do.”

As disappointing as it was, the expert’s response was also enlightening about the reality these workers face — and how our educational system, in hindsight, may have failed them.

When they were in school, the goal for many of these workers was to get enough education to fill the manufacturing jobs available at the time, while a select group pursued higher education. We didn’t foresee the need to provide them with the additional skills necessary to adapt to a world that would change right beneath their feet.

A recent feature on Bloomberg.com illustrates the dramatic shift in skills required in the new world of manufacturing, with a focus on people skills and problem solving rather than repetitive tasks — or even computer programming. The continued rise of technology will intensify pressure on existing occupations as automation replaces routine jobs, many of which we don’t think of as routine.  Working Nation recently released a video called Slope of the Curve, which brings this challenge to light.

Today, thousands of dedicated professionals are deeply committed to helping adult workers set new directions for their working lives. We hope this includes providing their clients with tools to help them adapt to, and embrace, change in the future. We tip our hat to them in this important work.

We also need to educate today’s students to adapt to, and embrace, the changes they will face in the future.  This should be at the core of their educational experience.  In our opinion, this includes some key elements:

  1. Building students’ self-awareness and the confidence to continually leverage their unique blend of personality, skills, talents and preferences into new working roles throughout their adult lives.
  2. Integrating this self-awareness practice with educational and career goal setting as early as middle school, and continuing to employ it through secondary and postsecondary education.
  3. Focusing more effort on assisting in the transition between each phase of the educational experience to increase persistence toward educational and career goals.
  4. Making the importance of lifelong learning, adapting and change a central theme in guidance conversations with students.

There is no doubt that a focus on STEM must be part of this effort, as these skills will be core to the jobs of the future.  And we need to look at radically new ideas, like those being explored by organizations like XQSuperschool.org and others.

As John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life.  Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

When it comes to helping today’s working adults and students, we couldn’t agree more.