The Future of Work & Its Implications for Higher Education: One Search Firm’s Perspective

Rick Skinner and Jeff Harris 

As search consultants for higher education, we listen carefully to the arguments and debates that often attend the beginning of a search for a new administrator. If hanging serves to focus the mind of the accused, then searches seem to sharpen the debate among academicians. 

This ought not to be surprising. Some years back, Michael Cohen and James March made the case to consider just how much searches for leaders “become complex garbage cans of issues,” so that “[d]ebate over the hiring of a football coach [or a research vice president or dean] can become a debate over the essence of a liberal education” (Cohen and March, 1986, p. 93). 

It is with these considerations in mind that we have listened and read the arguments over the purpose and importance of a college education. On the one hand, there are those who contend that an undergraduate degree is meant to foster attitudes and perspectives irrespective of their specific applicability to finding and doing a job. College is an experience that is meant to expand a person’s intellect, foster ways of thinking about a whole host of matters, promote the capacity of the individual to think, write and speak coherently and articulately, not prepare a graduate for a particular vocation.

A variation to this theme is that a liberal education actually does afford graduates the attributes needed to be successful in the rapidly changing world of work (more or this view below).

On the other hand there are those who maintain that a college education ought to prepare a graduate to take on a vocation for which there is demonstrable need by ensuring the requisite skills and knowledge of the job. A liberal education is a good thing, but college must respond to individual and societal needs in a more pragmatic and utilitarian way.

This is usually a debate in which the sides listen carefully for words that give away the other’s “real” position: “job-preparation” for the side that argues for workforce needs and opportunities or “preparation for a productive life as an informed citizen of a democracy” from the side that cherishes a liberal education.

And it is an important debate since it addresses head-on the question of the ends of education. What’s intriguing for a search firm such as ours is that both sides may be arguing about jobs, careers, employment and related topics just as those experiences themselves undergo real and profound change. If the world of work has changed as much as some observers suggest below, the debate over the ends of a college education might also change to reflect that world more fully.

For a search firm such as ours this debate has real and serious implications for the sorts of candidates we seek out when a university uses our services.

The Changing Nature of Work

No less a voice of conservatism than The Economist chose to grace the cover of its June 28-July 4, 2014, issue with the traditional mortarboard set squarely in the middle between the phrases, “Creative destruction” and “Reinventing the university.” 

At more or less the same time, the jobs website LinkedIn began posting a series of articles under the sobering title, “Jobs are over,” Part One of which begins with the provocative statement –

The era of using education to get a job, to build a pension, to then retire is over. Not only is average is over and the world flat, but this is the end of employment, as we once knew it. The future is one of life-long learning, serial short- term employment engagements, and the creation of a portfolio of passive and active income generation through monetization of excess capacity and marketable talents (McGowan, 2014

Moreover, the implications of such change were spelled out by Charles Handy 25 years ago:

When society can no longer assume that we all have a paid job for most of our lives, the old recipes for dealing with the small bits at the end (pensions) and the small bits missing (unemployment benefits) become irrelevant. . . . When education becomes an essential investment, whether as a passport to acquiring a salable skill on the outside, then to ration it is absurd. It is equally absurd to try to shove it all in the beginning of life, or to think that it can all happen in classrooms, or to ration it later on to those who were cleverest at 18 years of age, or to think that brain skills are the only skills that matter, just because a precious minority need them (Handy, 1989, p. 172.)

If these opinions on the changing nature of work are accurate depictions of trends now well underway, what should searches for leadership at research universities take into account in considering candidates? 

For that matter, will and how will search committees address the question of whether and how their institutions should change in order to address the changed character of work and what will this mean for the candidates they seek out? 

Will the sources of candidates change from overwhelmingly academia to greater acceptance of persons from other sectors of society? 

Do academic calendars, schedules, formats and the like need to change and, if so, who among candidates for a post would be prepared to lead and be capable of leading such change?

Recent searches for academic leaders at vice presidential and dean levels suggest that universities and their search committees are well aware that change will be required, that the status quo is not likely to be a safe posture in the near future. The issue of their graduates’ success at landing jobs is one faculty at even the most prestigious institutions view with concern and discuss frequently.

But to date, we have not been witness to an increased appetite for candidates as change agents, albeit, we hear regularly from presidents and provosts their concern lest institutional change not take place and soon. Instead, search committees ask candidates for vision statements and look at the results for indications that a candidate may propose disruptive change as part of a vision for a new position. Seldom does such a vision survive a search.

And if a candidate or a candidate’s references describe major change efforts - successful or otherwise - undertaken by a candidate, search committees tend to be somewhat skeptical.

This is not to argue carte blanch for candidates whose past careers and current roles are all about change. But we do feel an obligation as search consultants to offer client universiteis and search committees our best efforts to understand the changing environment of higher education and to press for careful consideration of candidates who have been willing and able to effect change in ways that reflect an honest assessment of whether continuity and persistence are the right directions for the institution or the school or college for which a search is underway.

And with respect to which type of education and curriculum best prepares graduates for first jobs, careers and, yes, a changed world of work, we think there is more common ground among the several sides of the argument to be found if consideration is given to the nature of work and career.

A Postscript

Lest this turn into a milquetoast plea for academicians to compromise over the ends of a college education by shaving off sharp corners from their respective arguments, we think a full-fledged debate is worthy of everyone’s time (albeit, we would prefer that it not take place as the outset of a search for a dean of engineering or a provost). After all, universities are not the only repositories of knowledge, even or perhaps especially when it comes to understanding the recent past. In the June 17, 2014, online version of The New Republic, Mark Lila writes about the end of the Cold War:

The ideologies in conflict, whose lineages could be traced back two centuries, offered clear opposing views of political reality. Now that they are gone, one would expect things to be much clearer to us, but just the opposite seems true. Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West been so shallow and clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in. The connection between words and things has snapped. The end of ideology has not meant the lifting of clouds. It has brought a fog so thick that we can no longer read what is right before us. We find ourselves in an illegible age.

If the academy is struggling somewhat to understand world affairs of a quarter century past, then it ought not be surprising if very intelligent people seem to be struggling with what the role, mission and purpose of a college education are. 

We are leery of quick or simple fixes for what ails or at least worries higher education. More than once, we have heard the academy discussed with reference to the plight of the frog placed in a pot of water that is then incrementally warmed until at last the frog is boiled. Universities, it is averred, are the 21st-Century’s institutional frogs, doomed to a slow but inevitable demise unless they change.

Things are not as simple and deterministic as the frog metaphor suggests. Indeed, it could be the case that, given time, the frog figures out its plight and saves itself. Maybe higher education can do the same.


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