Jamie Merisotis on the Future of Work [podcast]

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Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 7 | Originally recorded on 3/12/21

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, talks with Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, about how artificial intelligence and current crises will affect the future of work.

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John O'Brien: So welcome to another EDUCAUSE community conversation today with Jamie Merisotis, who's the president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Lumina Foundation is one of the largest American foundations working to increase the proportion of Americans who have college degrees, certifications, and credentials. They want to get to 60% by 2025, a really laudable goal. Also the author of a new book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. My book came out in October of 2020 and is already in its second printing. So welcome Jamie.

Jamie Merisotis: Thanks very much, John. Great to be with you.

John O'Brien: Before we even talk about the book, I have to say, I love to the dedication. The book is dedicated to Peter and Diana, your parents. So I'm curious, what do you think in this book would resonate with them the most?

Jamie Merisotis: My family is an immigrant family. My mother was born in Greece. My father was born in the US but spoke Greek before he spoke English. Their objective for me and my three brothers was to make us better people. We used to talk about the fact that making you better means not what you earn, but what you achieve. What they gave me was greater economic opportunity and social mobility by sending me to Bates College in Maine. They frankly didn't know what college was, except that we were all going. That was their objective. So, I look at my education at Bates... Bates is the alma mater of one of the great civil rights heroes of the last century, Benjamin Elijah Mays, who was Martin Luther King's mentor. He said in his autobiography, which is called Born to Rebel, that "Bates provided the context, which supported my choice to be free."

It's a famous quote that all Bates graduates know. To me, that's what human work is all about. It's the work that only humans can do. And it allows you to make those choices to be free, to emancipate yourself, not only as someone who is earning money, but as someone who is serving others. And that's what human work is. It's the work that only humans can do and it involves this virtuous cycle of learning, earning, and serving that gives us opportunities for social mobility and for meaning and purpose and dignity. And I think that's what my parents wanted for me, John, and that's what people want from work in the current era.

John O'Brien: And as the first-generation college student, son of factory workers, your story resonates with me quite a bit. As we think about our parents and their expectations of work, they did not see artificial intelligence coming. So it's just such an important part of your book, but what's the short answer to the question of, is AI a force for good relative to workforce or this just tremendous challenge?

Jamie Merisotis: I think the answer is both. Ultimately, I believe that what we know about technology is that technology has always created more opportunities than it's destroyed. But along the way, it does destroy opportunities. And so, we've been talking over the last few years about AI and work and about what, I jokingly called the robot zombie apocalypse that's coming because everyone seems to think that we will see major, major disruptions in work. Maybe.

I think there will be creative destruction and a building happening at the same time. I'm not sure that this era is any different, but what I do think is different in terms of what we need to do in this era is better prepare ourselves for this work that only humans can do. And that means that we've got to focus on building those human work traits and capabilities. So if meaning and purpose and dignity is what we want, it means that we've got to build our human traits, our capacity for compassion, for empathy, our ability to be ethical, our focus on collaboration and creativity. These are the things that make us uniquely human. Machines can do a lot of things really well. We should embrace what AI can do. It can establish patterns. It can use speed. It can build on algorithms to dig deeper and deeper into datasets. All of those things are really good. What we should be doing as humans is not the work that's left over after the machines do their part, but focusing on building our human traits and capabilities that make us more effective, more productive, happier human workers.

John O'Brien: And so all eyes then turn to higher education to some extent. Are we creating students who are learning to be able to thrive in this world that you are painting a picture of? Are there one or two colleges or universities that you see as leading the way in terms of positioning themselves to succeed in this brave new world?

Jamie Merisotis: There are so many great examples. One that people talk about a lot because it's a national institution is Southern New Hampshire University. In part because of the competency-based learning models that they've brought to the national stage and the B2B model that they built with College for America, but also because they've reinvented themselves essentially by hedging their bets. They're still a traditional liberal arts institution and they are a large online provider and they're doing both really well.

Another example from the book that I mentioned is Amarillo College in the Texas panhandle. This is a school that I think is serving the people that we are talking about in the modern era, in what will hopefully be the post-COVID era. A few years ago, the Amarillo College had a graduation rate of 9% and their president, Russell Lowery Heart said that what was really getting in the way for those students was things like childcare and transportation. Those were the biggest hurdles for the students in terms of their success. And so he set up a series of wraparound support services to meet those students' needs in the non-academic areas. Their completion rate is now over 50%, which is very high for two year college. And, at the end of the day, Russell says that the key was to meet students where they are, to address their life circumstances. And I think that's a really important lesson as the country's tumultuous environment right now because of COVID is really upending what students are doing and how they're approaching learning.

John O'Brien: Yeah, full disclosure, I'm on the advisory board for Southern New Hampshire's Global Education Movement, if you're familiar with that. To me, it's one of the most exciting things happening, giving, using technology, using online, using competency based education to put fully accredited degrees in the hands of refugees in some of the most desperately poor refugee camps across the world. I just think-

Jamie Merisotis: It's a great model.

John O'Brien: Yeah. Painting the way for... I think your book is honest. I really appreciate that. And it's blunt and it's direct about the challenges but it's optimistic too. Right?

Jamie Merisotis: Yeah. I am optimistic about the future. I do believe that we have the capacity to continue to reinvent ourselves as humans and as human workers, but we've got to set about the task of actually doing that. It really is a virtuous cycle of learning, earning, and serving others. That is what makes us human workers. If we set about understanding that the learning and the working processes are not separate distinct parts of your life, first you learn, then you work. But in fact, they're integrated, they're interconnected. I talk about, in the book, this idea of wide learning.

That learning has to take place in a wide time context, serving a wide range of people and ultimately addressing a wide range of content, both the core skills, the basic numeracy and literacy that you need, but also building those human traits and capabilities, or when I went to college, John, the durable skills. Some people call them soft skills, and I think hard versus soft is the wrong way to think about it. It's the things that are foundational and then the things that are really durable that are going to serve you well, but that you're going to have to continue to refine and refresh over the course of your life. To me, that's, what's really important about thinking about how we set about integrating learning, and earning and serving over the course of an entire work lifetime.

John O'Brien: Now, what was your undergraduate degree in?

Jamie Merisotis: My undergraduate degree at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine was political science.

John O'Brien: Okay. I get the sense of a real liberal arts curiosity running through the book, which is one of the things I really liked because you're repeatedly asking us to question our assumptions and the way we think and talk about things. You just talk about learning and earning, a lot of people see those as mutually exclusive. You're either focused on one or the other. I think you also take on one of my favorite false dichotomies that needs to go away, which is between education and workforce. That you're either focused on one or the other.

I've thought a lot about storytelling because my bachelor's degree is in English. I was hoping for English major for you, but you didn't come through, but you're close. It seems to me that these narratives that are so powerful don't ever go away, they just get replaced by something more powerful. And so what do you think is the compelling narrative that can replace those that say, well, you're either in education or workforce?.

Jamie Merisotis: Yeah. I think it's probably a narrative that was outdated even before the 2008, 2010 recession, even before COVID. I think what we have to realize that, in both of these cases, the great recession, and now the environment we're facing in the post-COVID world, is that when we prepare people for human work, it's obvious that neither training devoid of broader learning nor education devoid of preparation for work is going to give people what they need. And so we've had this view for a long time that education's in one place, workforce is somewhere else. And in fact, they really are parts of the same thing.

Now, there are specific skills that you can learn through workforce training programs that are useful, but you should always have those foundational things, those things that will also help you develop the durable traits that over time will serve you well. And in the education side, we always were preparing people for work, even though in higher ed, we often said we weren't. People were coming to our institutions and they're certainly coming now because part of what they wanted out of it was to get a good job and to lead a good life. So I think that those barriers are broken down. I'm not sure they were ever really valid, the distinctions between the two, but as I said before, what we really need is wide learning, a broad integrated system, focus on the individual learners, where the learners are really at the center.

John O'Brien: I love appreciative inquiry, ways of thinking, instead of pointing to everything that's not working, trying to point to something, some place where that dichotomy isn't alive. Everybody talks about Germany. But actually I think you could argue that dichotomy is almost stronger because students at a much younger age than in other countries are making a decision to do one path or another. Is there a system of education that you think has figured this out?

Jamie Merisotis: I don't think so. I'm a big fan of learning from the models of other countries. And I don't think that we have a model that is unique in every way. So I think learning from other experiences and then applying them to our unique context is something that's really important. I sort of like the way the Canadians have approached what they are doing. They have emphasized this earlier career, more skills based approach that then puts you on these pathways that take you over a longer time period of learning and working. I like some of the Scandinavian and the Singaporean models, which are very rigorous, but there's not one model that we should learn from.

I think we should, not adopt, but adapt from other countries. The German experience with the apprenticeship model is a really good one. I'm in favor of increasing apprenticeships, but apprenticeships need to work in a much wider context. We tend to think of apprenticeships in a very narrow set of job fields. And I think we should be apprenticing in a wide array of fields. That would be one way to address the broad economic model of the US that really is different than most of these other countries.

John O'Brien: Great answer. Hey, Jamie, I'm going to provide a simpler question that you might want to use instead of my rambling one. And just say, are there any countries that you think get this right? Something like that, just because I think that's the great part of your answer.

So back to the conversation, so crises bring out the best in people sometimes, and sometimes that's true of systems as well. Do you think the cluster of crisis we're dealing with now, COVID, pandemic financial, do you think it's done that or is it just revealing fault lines in education and maybe in workforce training systems?

Jamie Merisotis: Yeah, it's a great question. I think that the overlapping crises of COVID-19, racial injustice, the economic dislocation that we've seen, have done more to reveal the fault lines that were there and not necessarily take us down new paths. They've also probably accelerated what we needed to be doing, which is to recognize those important connections between education and workforce training that we've been talking about. But I do think that we've got to do a better job of making racial justice and equity core to what we do in the system. I do think that we need to do a better job of preparing people for these uniquely human tasks, the critical thinking, the problem solving, the collaboration, the communication that makes us unique as human workers. And I think we need to do a better job of ultimately recognizing that learning, earning and serving are part of an integrated system, not something that you're going to do once in your lifetime.

John O'Brien: When you meet with college and university presidents, what do you go to those kinds of conversations wanting to stress? What do you think is the biggest obstacle to the kind of change you advocate for higher education?

Jamie Merisotis: Part of the challenge for our industry, and it's an understandable challenge, is that we have become risk averse. In part, because we have long been the engine of economic progress and social mobility for American society. So it's a classic case of aversion to risk and change because the model has worked very well for the country up until this moment. So I think that's one issue.

The second is a belief in the durability of the model. So if the model has worked up until this point, let's not up end it. But I think we have an opportunity. And the opportunity for higher ed is that, in this human work environment, what we say we've always done well is really about human work skills. We say that our greatest contribution to society is that we prepare people for a long life of work and living where they can be those critical thinkers and those problem-solvers and those communicators and the people who can really be analytical and reason in a way, be ethical and participate in our democratic system.

To me, this is the opportunity for higher education, but in order to do that, we are going to have to change the model so that it is not simply one where you have to run through a time based, time limited model where you're always focused on a core set of majors and learning opportunities. You need to focus on a much wider set of human traits and capabilities, and we're going to have to do this over the course of people's lives. So this is not a one and done model from the higher ed perspective or from the perspective of the learner worker.

John O'Brien: So it's a point of pride that this question now two thirds into our interview is the first one with the word technology in it. So predictably, I want to talk a little bit about the role of technology. So you're talking in your book, very persuasively about re-imagining higher education. And interestingly, a lot of the disruption you're talking about is caused by technology, but what do you think about that intersection between technology and higher education? Is that going to be a fundamental part of this re-imagining that you write about?

Jamie Merisotis: I think it has to be. Technology always results in inexorable change. There's no reason to believe that it's not going to in this case. With the pandemic, I think what we will see in the coming months and next few years is some snap back to some of the things that we did before. We've learned a lot of things in the pandemic. The pandemic has been the largest unplanned, large-scale experiment in education and training that we've ever had. And so we've learned some things that I think are good. What I think we will see going forward is a lot more hybrid learning, because I think we will understand that technology serves certain kinds of learners in certain circumstances really well. I also think that we understand both the opportunities and the limitations of the current technology.

I also think that we're going to see greater confidence among consumers about technology and that we'll probably see increasing pressure on the institutions about costs. Part of what's happened in the last year, is these questions about, "Well, why am I still paying the same sticker price if I'm getting a product that seems to be delivered in a substantially different way?" That's a pressure on us and I think we're going to have to respond to as a higher ed sector. But ultimately, I believe that we will be using more technology, using it in more hybrid and integrated ways. And I think that the key for higher education is to embrace that and understand the unique role that we play in delivering people for society that have those human traits and capabilities, that make them more successful as human workers.

John O'Brien: As we think about technology and higher education in the context of workforce, I'm thinking of the article you wrote in 2016 for EDUCAUSE Review on credentials reform. I don't know if we ever told you, but that was actually one of our top 10, most popular articles in 2016. So now here it is, five years later. How has that reform progressed?

Jamie Merisotis: Well, thank you for remembering my writing from five years ago. That's good. Oftentimes people forget about what I wrote as soon as I wrote it. So I'm really grateful, John. One of the things that's changed since I wrote that article is that student centeredness has increased. I think the colleges and universities have done a better job of embracing the student as a unit of analysis. I think that's one of the points I tried to make in the piece. I don't think we've made a lot of progress on learning, not seat time, being the primary mode of how we think about measuring educational progress. Some of that has to do with regulatory barriers, particularly for financial aid. But I think that hasn't gone as quickly as I thought it would. Though I think the pandemic is going to accelerate some of that.

And the good news is that we now have an enterprise called Credential Engine, which is actually trying to help create a better understanding of the meaning behind credentials. In other words, what students should know and be able to do by making credential transparency real and using technology, using this technology called credential transparency descriptive language, to actually articulate it, drive it to the web, using this new descriptive language and allow employers as well as consumers to be able to access that information in real time.

Credential Engine will take a while to build, to have the balance of the data and the number of credentials that we need in the system. But I think over time, our understanding about credential reform is going to get better and better and I think we are making progress since I wrote that piece.

John O'Brien: I think it has to get better. You may not know, we're actually one of the foundational partners with Credential Engine with ACE and others, that it is just such important work. You can't reimagine higher education as long as you're still using the terms to describe it that go back 100 years.

Jamie Merisotis: That's exactly right.

John O'Brien: So we'll continue to watch that and work with you on that and Lumina on that. So this book, isn't your first book on work. You've been thinking about it and writing about it for a while. Dare I ask, what's your next book?

Jamie Merisotis: Well, my book from five years ago was called America Needs Talent, which was sort of my brain dump as a guy with a public policy background about education policy, urban policy, immigration policy. This book obviously is trying to make an argument about the nature of work and how we are going to better prepare people for work. I have a deep interest in equity and justice issues. I may focus on that. Who knows, John, maybe I'll write a book about wine tasting. It's hard to know right now. I have lots of interests. We'll have to see.

John O'Brien: It was a radically unfair question. I like acknowledge it. So speaking of unfair, when I was thinking of working and reading your book, I had a wonderful rabbit hole I went down remembering the first time I read Studs Terkel's Working and I thought, somebody needs to do a new version of Working, really a deep dive into the work life of people. And it would be really interesting to think of somebody doing a version of that, anticipating what this future work life could be like. [crosstalk 00:21:21]

Jamie Merisotis: I think Terkel's Working was from the seventies, if I recall. One of the things that I recall him profiling in the people that he talks about in the book is that work is this search for meaning as well as money. I think that's a really interesting contemporary point as we point to evidence that American workers increasingly say that meaning is what they want. In fact, there's Gallup data that shows that even for the lowest wage workers, they are willing to give up some money for meaning because they want purpose, dignity, social mobility. Those are the kinds of things they want from work.

So I think Turkel's ideas are probably durable, but at the same time, it would be interesting to update them by talking to a much more modern set of workers. Since most of the kinds of workers I recall him talking about in that book, we don't even have those job categories today. So work has changed in that sense.

John O'Brien: Well, we've been talking about work. We've been talking about Studs Terkel's book, Working, I'm recalling that that book was made into a musical. So I'm just saying, maybe if we wait, we'll eventually see the musical version of your book.

Jamie Merisotis: Human Work, the Musical. I like it. I can see a lot of the characters... I profile about two dozen characters in the book, real human workers to try to tell their stories. And boy, it would be great to see who would play some of these characters. Actually, one of the characters I mention in the book is a professional wrestler. So that would be interesting. Maybe he could play himself in the movie. Who knows.

John O'Brien: Somebody's got to buy those rights now. They could be snapped up. One of the rooting thoughts throughout the book, I think, is I'm thinking of you writing this book in a time when democratic systems were stressed and you seem to be at the same time you were thinking about work, also really thinking about the project of democracy in America. Was I hearing that right?

Jamie Merisotis: Yeah. I think it's one of the things that has surprised people the most about the book. I wrote this book primarily in 2019 and 2020, and yet there's an entire chapter devoted to democracy and human work. Part of what was on my mind was the rise of authoritarianism and what we were seeing then. This was of course before January 6th. This idea that stoking fear, fear of change, fear of advantage, fear of the other is clearly one of the clear threats to our liberal democracy in the US and other parts of the world. A lot of that has to do with the way in which information bubbles reinforce those anti-democratic tendencies.

So you see that in COVID, false information about COVID, you've seen that with some of the things about QAnon, et cetera. And the connection I think to human work and learning is that the more you develop your critical thinking, your problem solving, your analytics skills through formal education, the more durable your skills are when it comes to your understanding of democracy.

There's research that shows that a third of Americans who haven't gone to college believe that having a strong leader is good for the country and about a quarter, say military rule will be good for our country. When you then ask people who have college degrees, it's much lower. And those people are more likely to vote and volunteer and work in their communities and contribute to charity. So I think the real connection is, we've got to cultivate all the ethical decision making and critical thinking and the analytic reasoning and all the other democracy enhancing traits and capabilities in a lot more people. To me, that's the real connection between the threats that we're seeing to democracy now and preparing people for this human work future.

John O'Brien: Well, you've raised a lot of questions and I'm pretty sure a bunch of people listening have already logged on and ordered a copy of your book. I hope so, because I think it adds a really important voice to this crucial conversation as a country and really internationally. So thank you, Jamie Merisotis, for joining us today for our community conversation.

Jamie Merisotis: John, great to be with you.

This episode features:

Jamie Merisotis
President and CEO
Lumina Foundation

John O'Brien
President and CEO

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