As the pace of technological change accelerates and the half-life of skills continues to shrink, what students must learn is becoming less specifiable, predictable, and verifiable ahead of time.
The implications for colleges are many, but one of the clearest is that the importance of learning by doing will continue to elevate in importance. As a result, colleges will need to create more connections to the world of work—whether through projects, apprenticeships, internships and externships, or work-study.
This background is what makes former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift’s latest career move to assume the president of Education at Work, a non-profit that partners with businesses and colleges to offer students jobs during school, all the more noteworthy.
After leaving the Massachusetts governorship in 2003, Swift has dedicated her career to education from K–12 through the workforce. She’s led organizations that range from the edtech company Middlebury Interactive to her most recent work leading the LearnLaunch Institute (where I was chair of the board during her tenure).
In an age where the debate on the value of higher education rages on, Swift is staking a middle ground. “There’s a prevailing notion that college education either aids or hinders social mobility, particularly for traditionally underserved groups,” she said. “I firmly believe that college, when pursued in an economically sensible manner and coupled with meaningful employment opportunities, can be a powerful tool for upward mobility.”
Education at Work has a singular aim: to aid college students in finding employment during their academic years with prominent employers. This dual focus not only makes higher education more financially accessible as the students are paid for their work, but also equips students with job skills, broadens their professional network, and amplifies the real-world relevance of their academic pursuits.
Expanding work like this comes at a critical juncture. Prior to COVID, fewer teenagers were participating in the labor market than ever before in our nation’s history. The result has been a lack of understanding of how the world of work operated and expectations, a set of graduates unprepared for jobs, and an ongoing struggle to connect what students learned in the classroom to its outside relevance.
Swift ultimately sees Education at Work as more than just tackling the gulf between the skills required to succeed in today’s fast-changing workplaces and what is learned in college. She sees it as a key component in helping to reduce the education costs for families. She also sees it as critical to support students in taking jobs that help them develop their passions; embark on their careers through taking roles that relate to what they want to do post-graduation; and build up their social capital with a staple of mentors who have worked with them, can speak to students’ abilities and accomplishments, and can help them find and connect to a range of job opportunities.
As Swift noted to me, this is something she often already does for her children’s friends, as she loves to guide individuals through the maze of education and employment with advice, insights, and connections. Her new role with Education at Work then takes a personal passion and elevates it to her career in a structured, systematic approach with the potential for widespread impact.
Interestingly, Swift doesn’t see Education at Work as an at-scale solution for students and colleges seeking greater connection to careers. Instead, she believes one of the ways the non-profit can have an impact on the ecosystem is by crafting comprehensive playbooks that can serve as a blueprint for scaling this model. She draws inspiration from her tenure leading the LearnLaunch Institute, where she oversaw the creation of the “Building Blocks” tool, a tech instrument that supported districts in navigating the upheavals of the pandemic.
If Education at Work can help more colleges serve up more meaningful learning opportunities through employment to more students, that would be a welcome advance for all three sets of stakeholders.