Given the pace of change taking place throughout the world and in our regional economy, it’s fair to say the Future of Work is a consuming topic that all civic leaders are wrestling with.
One question is how to prepare students today for jobs that don’t yet exist.
As president of one of Philadelphia’s anchor institutions, this is an issue that is of paramount concern.
On one hand the rapid changes can seem daunting. In fact, one report published by Dell Technologies estimated that more than 80 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.
Some dispute that figure. But one thing is certain: fundamental change in the way we work is coming.
For us at Drexel, change has been our one constant. In fact, our founder, A.J Drexel, predicted as much. More than a century ago, he said: “The world will change … This University is designed to change with it.”
So, change is something Drexel has long embraced. One way we have focused on this issue is through experiential learning, delivered through our cooperative education program, which connects Drexel students to six months, fulltime employment experiences, up to three times during their undergraduate years.
Not only do our students learn on the job, but they bring their experience back to campus, and inform the faculty so the curriculum can be continually adjusted to adapt to the quickly changing demands of the workplace.
Over the years, our co-op program has evolved. We have now grown our network of employers to 1,600 companies, nonprofit and governmental organizations in 31 states. Our major employers include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, Peco, CHOP, J&J, and Vanguard. And we’ve added international co-ops in 38 countries.
Best of all, the co-ops give students hands-on experience and a chance to road test a career. Students cultivate skills that will benefit them regardless of what the Future of Work looks like. That includes emotional intelligence, critical thinking, interpersonal skills and ethical reasoning.
Employers, in turn, value our students because by the time they graduate, they have meaningful experience. They also know basics like how to work in teams, give presentations and meet deadlines.
At a time when many employers say their biggest challenge is finding well-trained workers, co-op is our major competitive advantage when it comes to participating in the Future of Work.
We know, of course, that universities like Drexel can’t simply work to fill tomorrow’s jobs – we must help create them through our research and development efforts.
One way we are doing that is through a Department of Defense-funded Center for Functional Fabrics, a 10,000-square-foot research and prototyping facility located in the heart of Schuylkill Yards, our innovation district across from 30th Street Station, that brings together material scientists and fashion designers to develop smart textiles that also communicate data.
The future of fibers and textiles lay in their ability to store and transmit energy and information. The field is in its infancy, but scientists envision “wearable electronics” with potential applications in health, energy, communications and national defense.
This is a tangible example of how we are preparing the next generation of leaders, investors, and creators, while being an engine of sustainable, equitable economic growth in our own right. But we also can’t fulfill those aspirations if we, as a community, are leaving countless people behind in many parts of our city, especially those in our adjacent neighborhoods, which are located in a federal Promise Zone.
As we think about connecting our students to work, we also think about how we, as an anchor institution, can connect our neighbors to meaningful and family-sustaining jobs.
We do this in a number of ways, from offering adult education and basic digital access and equity to badging and new kinds of certificate programs that are skilled based, rather than dependent on traditional credentials. All through our privately supported extension center located in the heart of the Promise Zone.
In Drexel’s Goodwin College, our Skills Hub offers professional Skill Tracks, Workforce Bootcamps, and Career Navigation resources. People can advance their careers, earn in-demand credentials and network with like-minded peers — without enrolling in a traditional degree program.
Going forward, we need workers who are prepared and comfortable to take advantage of new opportunities that emerge.
Those are just some of the many initiatives that are all part of a broader long-range plan to provide cradle to career education and job opportunities – through innovation and inclusion.
As you can see, our effort is multi-layered. The work is not easy and takes time. But it is also intentional, which is fundamental to getting results and addressing the Future of Work. In order to succeed tomorrow, we must prepare today.
Fortunately, the Philadelphia region has many advantages over other regions, including our size, location, concentration of higher education and healthcare institutions, affordability and transportation networks.
But we are also in fierce competition with other cities and regions here and abroad. When it comes to the Future of Work, it’s clear to me that we also need a sense of urgency.
This is something I stressed during my tenure as chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. We are in competition with cities and regions from around the world and need to step it up.
Lastly, I believe partnerships are central to the Future of Work. Just as the world economy is more interconnected, Philadelphia’s regional economy depends on us working together.
No one institution can go it alone. Federal and state cutbacks have left cities and regions to largely fend for themselves.
Anchor institutions like Drexel – that are invested in the region’s success – are stepping up. But working together – with focus and purpose – will better enable us to address the changes and challenges confronting the Future of Work.