‘Human Work’

Author discusses his book on the nature of work -- and preparing for that work with education and training.

October 13, 2020

Jamie Merisotis cares deeply about work, the jobs that will be available in the years to come and the education and training people will need to perform well in those jobs. Since 2008, he has been president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Based on his experience at Lumina and past work as president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, he wrote Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines (Rosetta Books).

Sara Brady, Inside Higher Ed's copy editor, was a copy editor for the book.

He answered questions about his book via email.

Q: Many fear that in the age of smart machines, there will not be enough work for humans. You have a chapter on the work that only humans can do. But are there enough jobs in that category? Won't smart machines eliminate some jobs?

A: Most of the thousands of books and articles on the future of work describe what I call the coming “robot zombie apocalypse,” in which automation and [artificial intelligence] replace most workers and eliminate many if not most jobs. For example, a report from Oxford said that 47 percent of jobs are at high risk of automation in this decade, and a McKinsey report said 800 million jobs worldwide could be automated in the next 10 years. Like these reports, much of what has been written on the future of work seems to suggest that work has no future -- that work itself is becoming obsolete, and people will need to find something else to do with their time.

Certainly, smart machines will eliminate many jobs, but at the same time, they will do what technologies have always done -- create millions of new jobs for people who are prepared to do them. Work is not going away, but it is being transformed by technology. Rather than focus on the future of work, I decided to write about the work of the future and found that most of our assumptions about it will need to change dramatically.

I call the work of the future “human work,” because as technology advances, we should assume that any task that is repetitive and predictable -- mental tasks as well as physical ones -- will eventually be performed by a machine. So, at its simplest, human work is the work only humans can do. But it is most certainly not the work that is left after machines take over. In writing the book, I found numerous examples of people doing human work, and what I learned from them is that it is not just more secure from technological disruption, it is work that is more fulfilling and meaningful to those who do it.

Q: Can you describe "the contemporary problem with training"?

A: We still tend to believe work requires a specific set of technical knowledge and skills that people should learn in the fastest possible way. We have a process for that called training, and it functioned reasonably well before the demand for talent accelerated and fundamentally changed, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. And then there’s another kind of learning called education that we like to believe is at a higher level because it prepares people for life beyond work.

In preparing people for human work, it’s obvious that neither training devoid of broader learning nor education devoid of preparation for work will give people what they need. Indeed, this deeply held belief that education and workforce training are different breaks down. Education and training continue to be viewed as fundamentally different and separate systems, and whatever people learn in one system is often not recognized by the other. Instead, these separate systems must be redesigned as a broad, integrated system focused on meeting individuals’ needs for learning -- broad integrative learning and narrow technical learning, both of which people will need throughout their lives. By melding these separate systems of training and education into one flexible system of learning, we also would make strides in addressing an even deeper societal problem: racial and social inequity. Far too often in our nation’s past -- and sadly, still today -- “training” has been seen as the default path for people of color, while their opportunities for “education” were limited. It’s well past time we erased this arbitrary line.

Q: Some would say that your arguments about college would lead to a lesser emphasis on the liberal arts. How would you respond?

A: In the book, I cite an example at the University of Virginia of how integrating learning across disciplines can better prepare people for human work. At UVA, medical students study at the university’s art museum to hone their observational and diagnostic skills, which are crucial to their success as physicians. Research showed that medical students and doctors who studied art had more capacity for personal reflection, tolerance of ambiguity and awareness of personal bias. But the medical students are not just taking an art class -- this course was jointly developed by the two faculties and is integrated into the medical school curriculum. To me, that’s a big difference.

Q: You note that "we don't know what our graduates have learned." What should we do about that?

A: My argument is not that students are not learning. It is that in a world of human work, it is essential that people know what degrees and other credentials represent in terms of learning. In other words, the meaning of all credentials, including college degrees, must be made transparent.

For workers to have to advance in their careers, they must understand the knowledge and skills they will need. For employers to find people who can perform well in their jobs, they need to know the specific knowledge and skills their jobs require. Employers also need to know what job applicants or new employees know and can do. Perhaps most important, workers themselves need to know what they know and can do so they can seize whatever opportunities are available to them to build a satisfying career.

We can solve this problem by assuring that employers, educators and individuals -- students and workers -- all speak the same language when it comes to knowledge and skills. The big advantage of using common frameworks and terminology to define the meaning of credentials is that we can build much stronger pathways through education and careers for everyone, including the millions of people who now lack opportunities for education and employment.

Q: What are some simple things colleges could do to get started in the direction you seek?

A: Here are two ideas from the book. The first is that higher education, even in occupationally focused majors,  is often too removed from the settings in which work is actually done. This may not have been a problem when work and education were so distinct. Indeed, some undoubtedly saw it as an advantage. But in a world of human work, this forced separation creates a range of problems. Work offers excellent opportunities for the kind of active, engaged learning that develops higher-level thinking skills and human traits. It’s also true when virtually everyone needs to be learning -- and learning all the time -- that a system in which learning and earning are treated as separate activities is simply unworkable. These two aspects of life are becoming one, and college should reflect that reality.

The second is that colleges need to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of today’s learners. In the book, I wrote about Amarillo College in the Texas Panhandle. Ten years ago, the college had a graduation rate of 9 percent, and Russell Lowery-Hart, now the president of the college, discovered that issues such as childcare and transportation were the biggest hurdles for students. He set up a series of “wraparound” support services to meet students’ needs in nonacademic areas, and 10 years later the completion rate is 52 percent, a nearly sixfold increase. Amarillo College’s biggest insight was that colleges must address students’ life circumstances. It’s a lesson other colleges and universities would do well to learn, especially as today’s uncertainty upends students’ lives.


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