Average Is Over. Abundance Is Not.

Co-authored by
Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D.
Heather E. McGowan, MBA

Average is over. The world is not just flat and connected; it is hyper-connected. There are three to four billion participants on a global collaborative platform. Routine work - anything that is repetitive either mentally or physically -- will be serviced by this platform. These were the key messages by New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman at the inaugural Becker College Presidential Speaker Series last week.

In 1971, amidst the start of the oil crisis -- an unlikely time for an airline startup -- Southwest Airlines flew its inaugural flight. Today, it is the fourth largest domestic airline and the only one that has been profitable for 41 consecutive years -- and counting. For the past 20 years in a row, Fortune Magazine has recognized Southwest as one of the most admired companies -- the only commercial airline ranked in the top ten. Southwest's president emeritus, Colleen Barrett, is an esteemed alumna of Becker College. One of Southwest's most enduring secrets to success is a mastery of non-routine work inherent in good customer service.

What do Friedman's ideas and Southwest Airlines have in common? One describes the new normal of increasingly marginalized routine work, while the other embodies a perspective towards opportunity within it. By many measures, this is perhaps the worst time in higher education history. The costs are unsustainable. Some question the value. The skills gaps are widening. The traditional college age student population is in decline. Online education is promising, but is only a component solution that expands access and reduces the cost of delivery. Further, according to a recent paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, nearly half of all jobs could be automated in the next decade. As Friedman said: "Clearly, Becker did not get the news about higher education because they don't see scarcity, they see abundance."

Similarly, Southwest saw abundance in the unfavorable 1970s oil crisis. To be considered for employment at Southwest, one needs to demonstrate a warrior spirit, a servant's heart and a fun-loving attitude with a focus on safety, customer service and maintaining low costs. Make no mistake; the routine work of their business is highly operationalized and scrutinized -- as evidenced by their consistently high ranking as one of the safest airlines. The non-routine aspects of their business, of meeting and exceeding customer expectations in the uncertainty of the airline industry, are what set them apart. Influences affecting travel such as weather are non-routine, and customer needs are non-routine. Life is non-routine.

In the business of higher education, we must educate students for jobs that may not yet exist to solve problems not yet known. The balance between liberal arts and professional education over the past few decades shifted emphasis to acquisition of professional skills so graduates could enter jobs and hit the ground running. As components of all jobs become automated, robotized and digitized, the slice of non-routine professional skills becomes narrower and increasingly more important. From this, we are seeing a return to emphasis on the power of liberal arts or general education to train students with skills for non-routine uncertainty. Harvard education guru, Tony Wagner, calls these the essential innovation-ready skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. The Institute for the Future of Work has identified the ten future skills of 2020 -- all of which are based upon both leveraging and integrating with the rise of automated routine work.

While proficiency in a professional skill is essential for entry into the workforce, today's graduates' ability to handle the non-routine, and the uncertainty that comes with change, is what will set them apart. At Becker, we are reconceiving our general education curriculum to concentrate on developing tools to navigate ambiguity, divergent and propositional thinking and social and emotional intelligence. We are not alone in this shift towards a revitalized liberal arts curriculum. Philadelphia University explicitly states their emphasis on what they call Nexus Learning, that which comes at the intersection and integration of the liberal arts and professional education. Philadelphia launched a college with an integrated core curriculum for all students to develop skills for design thinking, ethnographic research methods, business model innovation and resilient system thinking. University of Washington at Bothell has developed a discovery core curriculum for undergraduate students, which focuses on exploration and inquiry.

Thomas Friedman wrote, "Your boss doesn't care what you know, because the Google machine knows everything. Your boss cares about what you can do with what you know. That's the only thing your boss will pay for."

Although average is over, the opportunities for an entrepreneurial optimist remain abundant. As Thomas Friedman so eloquently said, we want our future workforce to stay hungry for opportunity, remain "in beta" by always looking to improve, take pride in the extra personal value they bring, and foster an entrepreneurial mindset -- seeking to create value in all that they do.

Anything less is educational malpractice.