The Technology Impact On Our Workforce: Are recents grads as technology savvy as they have been portrayed?
Maria Manus Painchaud
The following are excerpts of the findings from the employers focus group segment of the NH Technology Landscape Study examining K-12 technology curricula. The focus group was comprised of employers representing 3 segments: 1) small employers/organizations that have opted to outsource their IT departments, 2) mid to large size employers/organizations that have inhouse IT departments, and 3) the organizations/vendors that provide the IT services. They included for profit and not-for-profit organizations as well as two fortune 500 companies. Additionally, there were representatives of higher education faculty and administration.
Over the last 50 years, the acceleration of the advancements in technology has consistently increased at a higher and faster pace. Challenges for companies to keep upgrading, adjusting, and integrating, at minimum, sustain and hopefully advance, their competitive advantage. With each generation entering the workforce, the advancements in technology have provided new and different ways of addressing problems and issues; while creating new challenges in managing the workforce. There were three key findings through this focus group:
- Education and workforce needs are not in alignment.
- The lack of human relations skills, also known as soft skills, is more evident than ever in the workforce and essential in any position.
- The concept of shifting from teaching technology as a discipline to integrating it throughout the curriculum as a tool to be used in concert with learning and development.
Finding 1, Misalignment
One of the key issues identified by the Business Roundtable (2013) was the disconnect and growing mismatch between education and US Businesses need. In its report it identified in the import of having a common core. At that time 46 of the states & District of Columbia had adopted the common core, Minnesota had partially adopted it and Virginia, Nebraska, Texas and Alabama had not adopted. The concept of the common core is to ensure students are starting with the same basic skills; the challenge becomes execution. Many teachers are not as familiar or intimately aware of how the technologies are utilized and incorporated in daily operations of business. The study of New Hampshire high schools conducted underscored the challenge with execution of a common core when there were collectively over 900 different courses throughout the various high schools that were tied to the common core of technology. While there is excitement for social media technologies, the basic fundamentals of technology are not necessarily the focus. The consensus of the focus group participants was that while young people in general are techno-savvy, it is limited to social media applications and surprisingly they are limited in general computing or technology skills.
Finding 2, Human Relation Skills
Repeatedly, throughout the focus group session, the participants spoke about the lack of soft skills. Human relations skills, also known as interpersonal skills, are essential in any work environment. The ability to communicate effectively, problem solve, think critically, resolve conflict, employ continuous learning, have strong team membership skills, and be aware of the work environment in general are exceptions today instead of the norm. Mark Feffer (2016) wrote that “soft skills are needed to excel in today’s workplace but are the hardest to teach and increasingly hardest to find” (p.55). He noted that according to a survey by Adecco Staffing USA, 44 percent of executives said a lack of soft skills was the biggest proficiency gap in the US workforce. Human relation skills have increasingly been a concern in the workforce.
Since the start of the 21st century, more focus and attention has been given the need of soft skills in the workplace. The Wall Street Journal noted that soft skills such as leadership potential, effective communications, and the ability to work well in a team environment are key attributes businesses are looking for in job candidates (“Playing Well,” 2002). In 2001, Bradley and Painchaud conducted a survey of over 100 New Hampshire businesses. As part of the study, employers indicated that team member skills, problem solving, critical thinking, technology proficiency and communication skills were key to maintaining a competitive advantage. A follow up study was conducted in 2006 showed the level of importance given the soft skills. The employers rated the level of importance to the workplace as follows: 96% communication, 92% teamwork/team membership, 88% problem solving, 58% analytical skills, and 54% information technology.
Finding 3, Rethinking Technology Education
A document produced by the Office of Educational Technology (2016) within the US Department of Education advocates for schools to rethink and reimagine the role of technology in education. The article speaks of the need to ensure people have an integrated learning experience, which weaves the 21st century competencies throughout the learning experience. It talks about the development of critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration and multimedia communication along with non-cognitive competencies. Additionally, it suggests that various exercises, digital gaming and other experience should be incorporated to foster development of relationship management, self-awareness, locus of control, executive function, working cooperatively, and basic humanity skills.
The focus group was a valuable process. It helped to further clarify the misalignment. Given the nature of technology advancements and innovation, it appears a strong foundation in the basics, understanding what technology encompasses, and the application of it will be helpful for students to adapt and continue to learn as they make their way into the workforce. One participant offered, it shouldn’t be technology taught as a subject, but rather in everything we do. The focus group suggested many ideas which ultimately centered around an integrated approach, threading technology throughout the curriculum and starting with first grade, if not kindergarten, as there needs to be a continuum of learning.
There was a recognition of the challenges and constraints that are obstacles for public education to change quickly. It was recommended that a pilot be developed with a cohort of students in an elementary school that could be followed through to high school. Thought and deliberate considerations of the design would need to be flushed out but it might be a way to gather the data and learn what works and what doesn’t. To roll out a major curriculum change without further research and application would likely be doomed to failure.
There would need to be buy-in from all stakeholders, teachers, students, parents, business, industry, etc. Additionally, a plan for preparatory training of teachers and facilitators along with a plan for ongoing training would need to be considered.
In the end, the focus group was able to identify the misalignment, between education and business/industry, the need for soft skills, and the recommendation for rethinking technology education from a standalone discipline to an integrated process/application.