We need to help our students to robot-proof their future

By Jim McAtee

Across the nation, Americans worry robots or artificial intelligence will replace them — much like how the telegraph put the Pony Express out of business or the steam locomotive ended the wagon train era.

Automation is drastically changing the job market. In 2015, the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State found that 88 percent of all job losses in manufacturing sector over the last 15 years can be blamed on advancements in technology that are fueling productivity improvements.

According to another CBER study, fear that a robot or computer could put workers in the unemployment line may be directly linked to some physical and mental health issues. And additional research points out that AI could reach into many fields in the coming years.

While there is trepidation in many workplaces, Ball State University is tackling the issue: We’re teaching our students to be what robots cannot be.

Employers tell us they need college graduates who have skills beyond knowing facts and figures and how to use the latest equipment and technology. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, those skills include critical thinking and problem solving, oral and written communication, teamwork, digital technology, work ethic and professionalism, leadership, career management, and global and intercultural fluency.

These attributes are a called transferable skills, or workplace competencies. You will notice that none are industry-specific, and that’s intentional. In classrooms, laboratories and immersive learning experiences, we are teaching these skills to the next generation as well as professionals taking classes to update their skills or seek new careers.

At Ball State, we’ve offered education innovation throughout our 100-year existence. One example is immersive learning, where student teams work with a faculty mentor to find practical solutions to real problems for a community partner. We’re continuing on that tradition of innovation with our unique Skills Infusion Program, which we piloted this past spring.

We’re pairing faculty members with alumni employers to discuss how to incorporate transferable skills as learning outcomes in their courses. We are preserving academic freedom while tapping into our alumni as a resource to make connections between the classroom and the world into which students will graduate.

Transferable skills are consistent with academia’s quest for knowledge and greater understanding. At Ball State, they complement our values as stated in the Beneficence Pledge — excellence, honesty and integrity, social responsibility, respect for all people and gratitude.

Thanks to funding from the Lilly Endowment, nine faculty members in anthropology, biology, geology, philosophy, English and sociology worked with alumni volunteers this past spring. This fall, the program will include computer science, modern languages, finance, Honors College and others. We hope that students will see transferrable skills as learning outcomes in multiple disciplines, some of which might surprise them.

A philosophy professor told his alumnus partner that he could include all the transferrable skills except one, digital technology. The alumnus, who works for a tech giant, told the professor he was wrong. He used the logic he learned from his philosophy courses as the basis to write code.

The Skills Infusion Program is a way of thinking. It elevates transferable skills to the same level as academic preparation. Those skills will help our graduates adapt to a changing world and job market in the decades ahead — and those skills will help our students become citizens who serve their neighbors near and far.

McAtee is the director of Ball State’s Career Center.