To Unleash a Modern Workforce, America Must Revamp Education

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Federal leaders say the nation needs to pivot education towards tech-focused training in fields like robotics.

To effectively build a modern workforce and combat the nation’s crippling debt, the U.S. must radically transform its education system, federal leaders said Thursday.

“We are in the information age and we have all these technological advancements like the Khan Academy and mass online open courses, but we are not using them—we are still embracing an 18th- or 19th-century model of education,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said at the Labor Department’s Tech Day in Washington.

The annual event highlights implementations of innovative technologies across government, but a recurring theme in officials’ opening speeches reiterated the need for America to revamp education. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said it feels as though the nation educates today as it did “a thousand years ago.”  

“Technology has moved forward, but our system and education and training hasn’t,” Acosta said.

The secretary also noted that his three children use Khan Academy—a free online learning dashboard that educates across multiple subjects—and that the platform offers appealing and accessible services that should be more widely used.

“With sites like Khan Academy, we can start to transform the system and we can start to create education that is [based on] stackable credentials and continuous learning, where you are working and you are developing your skills and it is all happening in a simultaneously integrated scheme as technology accelerates and changes faster and faster,” Acosta said.

Johnson said a large part of the problem with the nation’s education system is that, for decades now, leaders and parents have pushed the notion that people must graduate college with four-year degrees.

“I can’t tell you how wrong-headed that is, how destructive that is,” Johnson said. “A lot of kids don’t really want a four-year degree and aren’t particularly suited for it, and what are we telling kids that don’t have a four-year degree? That they are second class citizens? Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The senator said this is a reason why people collectively account for more than $1 trillion in student debt and yet universities are offering degrees that aren’t suited for the modern job market. He said he’s visited high schools around the nation and heard echoes that students want more access to robotics and technical education.

“So we need to rethink all of these things,” Johnson said. “Our education system ought to embrace technology.”

Margaret Weichert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, also stressed that leaders must also promote life-long learning for employees who already make up the current workforce.

“Unleashing the digital workforce will come from a revolution in how we acquire new skills and new capabilities and constantly learn to adapt to new technology,” Weichert said.