Fundamental Skills

As automation looms over the world of work, the changing face of labor factors more and more into decisions about which college course makes for the best investment of time and money. In a recent discussion with Futurism, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. — a graduate of the University of Alabama and the acting administrator of NASA — had a few pointers for students and educators about how to navigate this increasingly bumpy terrain.

Lightfoot began by noting how quickly progress moves in today's world, and how this may leave some young people (and some educators) at a loss: "By the time you are a junior in college, what you learned as a freshman is already obsolete." Of course, he notes that there are some basics you will always need, "there are some fundamental skills that are required either way. If you are in a science program, you need science. If you are in a technology program, you need engineering and math. That’s just the bottom line."

But still, issues remain.

Regardless of what fundamentals you learn, by the time that you graduate college, much of the information you acquired there will no longer apply—and things are only going to get worse as our research into automation and artificial intelligence continues to advance.

This said, Lightfoot maintains that higher education does teach students a lot of valuable lessons — they just might not be on the syllabus (yet). Ultimately, he outlined what needs to change to prepare young people for the world, and workforce, of tomorrow.

Teamwork Makes Dream Work

Most college courses require students to work alongside one another sooner or later. The way Lightfoot sees it, this kind of experience plays an essential role in preparing the sort of candidates who are going to excel at an organization like NASA.

"There are a couple of skills that will always be needed," says Lightfoot. "That’s being able to work on a team, to work well with other people, and to understand that you’re never an individual in this. I can tell you, there’s not a soul in this agency that can say ‘I did something.’ No. We did something."

An organization like NASA can't complete its important work without every cog in the machine working in sync. Automation and robotics are going to change the kind of job opportunities left available to college graduates in the next decade and beyond, but good collaboration skills will still be valuable.

"You need to learn to communicate," adds Lightfoot. "Those skills are very important, and they’re something that you can always teach and will always be important." It may not be much, but in the end, having skills in human-centered interactions will help ensure you are employable in the world of tomorrow.

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