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Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
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3

Why Is Adaptability Important?

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

The first workshop panel, moderated by Wanda Reder, chief strategy officer at S&C Electric Company, looked at the broad question of why adaptability is important. The panelists had very different backgrounds—one was an economist with a technology company, one was the leader of a utility company, and one was a university administrator.1 Yet they agreed that people working in the modern economy need to be adaptable to deal with an uncertain future.

PREPARING FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Productivity growth in the United States is the lowest it has been in 30 years, reported Guy Berger, chief economist with LinkedIn. In manufacturing, labor productivity has not changed for six years, “which is shocking,” he said. “Economists are still puzzling about what exactly is going on.”

In fact, productivity growth is sluggish worldwide, not just in the United States. Part of it, Berger speculated, may have to do with employees not being certain that their jobs will survive economic downturns, thereby changing the social contract between employers and employees. Whatever the reason, the consequences are substantial. According to a report prepared by PwC for LinkedIn, greater adaptability of workers could create $130 billion of additional productivity annually for the 11 countries examined in the report, including $30 billion in the United States (PwC 2014).

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1 Nick Donofrio, IBM Fellow Emeritus, was also a panelist. His remarks from this and other points in the workshop are consolidated in chapter 1.

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

The trend of low productivity growth could change, Berger acknowledged. The introduction of computers into the economy, or before that electricity, took time to boost productivity growth. Although robotics and artificial intelligence have not yet had a major influence on productivity, they could do so quickly in the future. But the future is very hard to foresee, Berger pointed out. “This is going to sound harsh, but as somebody who used to work in forecasting, [I’d say that] if someone says they know what skills are going to be needed in 10, 25, 50 years, I’d like to sell you some oceanfront property in Kansas. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

In the face of such uncertainty, durability and adaptability are critical skills for workers, Berger said. Durability is the idea that a worker can survive future change. Adaptability is the idea that employees can shift part of their human capital to a new direction if a change occurs.

The global educational system, however, is generally not preparing people for such a future, according to Berger. Market forces and the educational system are pushing people into acquiring less adaptable human capital. Instead of broad skills in areas such as chemistry, history, or chemical engineering, college students are acquiring relatively narrow skills, such as learning how to use popular programming languages. As graduates become more specialized, they are more vulnerable to change.

But employers have incentives to train workers in specialized rather than generalizable skills—so that, for example, employees may be less tempted to take their skills elsewhere. And employees have an incentive to learn specific skills that make them money right away rather than broader skills that may not pay off until the long term. Government has a role to play in blunting these incentives so that the workforce does not become increasingly specialized and employees gain the types of skills they will need in the long run, Berger said.

In some parts of the economy, particular skills are losing currency. For example, technological change has reduced the need for certain skills in the publishing industry, such as page layout. Also, some skills suddenly become popular but soon fade, such as proficiency with a particular programming language. “A worker who’s acquiring [such a skill] will quickly have to acquire another one in a year or two,” said Berger. The better option is an education that enables a worker to learn a variety of skills and be ready to move from one to another.

Distinctions between durable and nondurable or adaptable and nonadaptable human capital are actually on a spectrum. Certain kinds of human skills are always going to be needed and might become even

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

more important while others go out of fashion. For example, demands for Twitter-related skills have fallen markedly, while the demand for skills related to other social networks has grown. Yet people with Twitter-related skills have not experienced an obvious economic decline because they have pivoted into other professional areas. This happens throughout the economy. For instance, when the price of oil crashed and many workers employed in the fossil fuel industry in the United States lost their jobs, many appear to have found employment in other areas such as construction. “When you have sets of human capital that potentially can be used in multiple places, people do change.”

Core skills that are transferable across multiple industries and functions are critical in the face of uncertainty, Berger pointed out. “I don’t like the term soft skill because I think it’s pejorative,” he said, but skills such as leadership, adaptability, or business strategy acumen fall into this category. “That’s where I would urge us to dedicate a lot of our efforts.” Since the future is uncertain, the best option is to prepare workers for as many futures as possible.

To take advantage of opportunities, people also need geographic mobility and economic security to make the transition to a new job or industry, Berger added. However, the ability to move is disappearing in some parts of the country where the greatest economic opportunities are being created. “Not being able to afford housing in a place that has a lot of jobs is disrupting adaptability in a big way,” he said. “Even places that used to be very affordable are no longer affordable. That’s keeping people in relatively lower-value economic paths.” Geographic mobility means somehow figuring out an affordable housing solution, he said.

In addition, people need some level of economic security to be adaptable. “You need to make sure that people have some sort of economic safety net—whatever that looks like in this kind of situation—so that they feel they can take the chance to adopt and learn new skills to complement their existing ones.” If people need to risk their economic livelihood to become more adaptable, their ability to adapt will be blunted.

ORGANIZATIONAL AND INDIVIDUAL ADAPTABILITY

“If [adaptability] is really important for somebody even in the electric utility industry, then it’s got to be important for everybody,” said Greg Dudkin, president of PPL Electric Utilities. Utilities have historically been seen as relatively stable industries, but even they are now threat-

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

ened with change. Greater energy efficiency means that electric loads are either not growing or declining. Consumers are looking to generate their own electricity through solar power or other renewables and sell it back to the grid. “What has worked for 100 years is not going to work for even the next 5 to 10 years,” he said. “Companies that adapt to change will do very well; those that don’t will not.”

Long-term success requires establishing the right culture, said Dudkin. For him, that means a constructive culture that is striving to achieve exceptional results. The goal of PPL Electric Utilities is to be the best utility in the country, he said, which requires a culture that “truly engages the employees so that they can reach their full potential.” People need autonomy and the ability to achieve mastery that taps into their intrinsic motivation. They need “a purpose that’s bigger than themselves.”

When Dudkin came to the company, it tended to be passive, defensive, hierarchical, and conflict avoidant. He sought to instill a culture marked by adaptability as well as curiosity and humility. As an example of curiosity, he cited a problem the company had with birds that would dry their wings on utility towers and short out transmission lines. Protecting every tower from birds would be cost prohibitive, so the company turned to data analytics and found correlations between the structures affected by the problem and proximity to populated areas, water, and forests. “We identified a small number of structures that we treated, and we’ve reduced the impact on our system.”

Humility signals an openness to new ideas. “The opposite is arrogance,” observed Dudkin. “Arrogant folks don’t do well in my organization, because for me it’s a sign that they believe they know everything and aren’t open to new ideas.” People need to be able to innovate, which is a hard thing to mandate. Dudkin has had success bringing in outside advisors to teach employees how to think about things differently. And he has found that the most innovative teams are the ones that have the most diversity, whether in terms of gender, age, race, or position in the company.

He also emphasized continuous learning, which he described as difficult to instill in an organization. Even as his company has won awards for its procedures, he has sent teams to other companies to learn what they are doing better. Whether considering an engineer who does technical work or a lineman who does physical work, “I’m looking for people who are adaptable, who are continuous learners.” Interviews give some indication of whether a person will have an agile mindset, but they

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

are not a perfect predictor. His company therefore gives employees a set of tests after they are hired to try to detect correlations between the test results and the ability to work across functions and within teams.

The leaders of an organization can create a culture that blurs the line between front-line workers and management, he said. In this way, all employees can understand what the visions and goals for a company are and help achieve those ends. They will take the initiative to figure out better ways of moving forward, but this initiative needs to originate with leaders and be driven throughout an organization, Dudkin said.

Individuals who are not adaptable to changing conditions will be more at risk in the future, Dudkin continued. They need the same things that companies need: adaptability, curiosity, humility, a capacity to innovate and learn continuously, and the ability to deliver results while monitoring industry and technology trends. Such people are not necessarily the smartest people in an organization, Dudkin explained, but the ones who find out what is happening elsewhere and are able to build on ideas and work well with others.

People who have been with an organization for 30 years are less likely to have been trained to be creative or work across functional silos, Dudkin observed, so organizations need to train them to be innovative. A large number of people in his company have gone through at least one session in which employees learn how to innovate, “and they’re coming out excited. It’s starting to build on itself—they’re getting success, they’re seeing that they’re adding value, and they’re doing it on their own.” Employees across the organization are moving from a fixed to a growth mindset.

Dudkin said that his company is very transparent about what is happening both in the industry and in the company, about what the challenges and the opportunities are. Some people are not interested in changing, he acknowledged, but the company is committed to explaining how the future will be different and how employees can prepare for that future.

When Dudkin started at the company, he knew almost every improvement initiative that was happening, “which is really sad.” Now he talks with employees about what is going on and has never heard of some of the initiatives. “That’s fantastic. They understand what the vision [and] goals of the organization are, and they’re taking initiative upon themselves to figure out better ways of moving forward.” The leaders of an organization need to create a culture, and remove the barriers, to make that possible, he said.

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

THE AGILE MIND

In the past, humans were conditioned to act more like machines, whereas in the future machines will increasingly have the capabilities to be more like humans. At present, modern societies are at an inflection point between the past and the emerging future (figure 3-1), said Robert Johnson, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who acknowledged the contributions of Heather McGowan in shaping the ideas he presented at the workshop. At the same time, humans are living longer, and paradigm shifts are coming faster and faster. One hundred years went by between the development of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. More than half a century passed between the discovery of electricity and the development of the telephone and television. But the Internet is only about 20 years old, the iPhone was introduced only about 10 years ago, “and over the next 10-plus years we’re going to see even more change,” he said.

These new paradigms have produced successive revolutions in the world of work. Before the 20th century, the emphasis was on physical labor, basic engineering, and skills leading to a stable job. From the start

Image
FIGURE 3-1 Society is at an inflection point that marks a transition between humans handling most routine tasks and machines performing the majority of routine tasks. Source: Robert Johnson and Heather E. McGowan, “Future of Work and the Academy,” presentation to the National Academy of Engineering, November 2017.
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

of the 20th century until about 1970, standardization, certainty, and low risks were the hallmarks of the workplace. Since then, deep expertise and disciplinary training have helped workers adjust to the information age. In the future, Johnson predicted, learning agility, adaptability, empathy, and transdisciplinary expertise will be valued. “We have gone from having to be generalists to specialists to hyperspecialists to neogeneralists.”

These changes have had profound implications for education. In the past, people went to school to gain knowledge and skills that they could apply to a job over the course of a long working life. As people matured, learned from experience, and gained judgment, they became particularly valuable workers in the middle to later years of their careers. But in today’s rapidly changing world, the high-value zone tends to occur earlier in a person’s career. With people living longer, perceptions of diminished value tend to extend for longer periods during the later parts of their careers.

Johnson’s response to the changing nature of work has been to emphasize the importance of developing an agile mindset. Many of the jobs of the future cannot be foreseen, and many of today’s jobs will no longer exist in the same form in the future. People are going to need to be able to recondition themselves for an uncertain future. “The jobs will change, the markets will change, and the skill sets they will need will change,” he said. “We are educating young people for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems we haven’t identified.” Young people need to ask themselves: What is my passion? “If they are passionate,” said Johnson, “the productivity will naturally come.”

People will need to learn to learn and learn to do throughout their lifetimes. “Value creation will come out of that as a natural process,” Johnson said. “We want to give young people knowledge and the power of learning. We want to impart knowledge to them and give them the ability to learn to learn. We want to give them uniquely human skills that robots cannot do. If they have that, they will be adaptable and will be able to create value in the marketplace.”

One hallmark of the agile mindset is empathy. Students also need to know how to work collaboratively, solve problems through divergent thinking, be entrepreneurial, and add value. An analogy is the distinction between apps and operating systems. Apps are very specific and designed to work in a particular context. But students need to be educated as “operating systems” so that they can constantly be “upgraded”

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×

and work in a variety of contexts. “Do we need majors? I don’t know. I’m debating that with myself.”

The challenge is particularly great with people who were educated to have a very different mindset, said Johnson. He grew up in Detroit, where people were able to make a good living doing relatively routine jobs. Then, all of a sudden, the jobs were gone. “How do we explain to friends I grew up with in Detroit who went straight into the factory, who are 50-something now, what happened to them? We have to have the courage to say, ‘Those jobs are not going to come back, and it’s not because they were exported, it’s not because of immigrants, it’s because the world has changed.’” The nation has to go a step farther, he added, and decide what it is going to do about those changes. “We have to come up with the solutions as a logical next step, because I really do believe that a metalworker, if he or she had the data and understood it,…would figure it out.”

People also need to know that it is okay to fail. “If they think they’re going to be chastised every time they fail, they’re not going to try anything new.” That is one of the keys to leadership—creating an environment where there is tolerance for failure.

These changes will make great demands on higher education, Johnson acknowledged. The enrollment of his institution is currently about 9,000 students; a decade in the future, he expects the enrollment to be between 20,000 and 25,000 students. But many of these students will be learning online rather than drawing on the institution’s physical infrastructure. “I don’t think of our business as brick and mortar anymore. It’s click and mortar.” To accommodate this more varied learning environment, spaces on campus will need to be open and flexible so that they can be used for many different purposes, whether as maker spaces, faculty offices, or classrooms. The institution can partner with businesses to provide the skills students need, perhaps through online or blended instruction around the edges of an ongoing job. The faculty will need to adopt a more flexible mindset compared with the more fixed mindset that has sufficed in the past. For instance, they might have joint offices, or offices in conjunction with businesses.

In closing, Johnson professed the belief that when the data are put in front of the people in an organization, they can see for themselves why that organization has to change. “It creates a very different dynamic,” he said. “It unleashes them.”

Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
Page 14
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
Page 15
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
Page 17
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
Page 18
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
Page 19
Suggested Citation:"3 Why Is Adaptability Important?." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Adaptability of the US Engineering and Technical Workforce: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25016.
×
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Late last year, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a workshop on Preparing the Engineering and Technical Workforce for Adaptability and Resilience to Change. The workshop springs from the earlier NAE report Making Value for America which described the ongoing transformation in the way in which products and services are conceived, designed, made, and distributed. The workshop focused on the challenges facing the workforce in light of these dramatic changes in the production process, especially the need to constantly renew and learn new skills.

The workshop served to increase stakeholders' understanding of both the importance of workforce adaptability and the definition and characteristics of adaptability. It also provided an opportunity to share known best practices for fostering adaptability, including identification of barriers and multiple pathways for overcoming those barriers. As important, it helped to identify needs for future study and development. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.

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