The role of education in the future of work in a Post-COVID era

Education in the Future of Work post COVID Joseph Kopser

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Even before COVID, the topic of how higher education can adapt to the future of work was already occurring.  In a widely shared post, the World Economic Forum released their findings around the future of work in January 2020 with regard to the impact of automation, technology, cross-sector thinking as well as the role of the public and private sector to work better together.  In addition, the future of work is the focus of my efforts at Grayline in addition to my non-profit, USTomorrow.

The questions being asked in city halls, board rooms and in legislatures include important questions like:

1- What are the skills for the future workforce?

2- What are the functions of education?

3- What is the future of education in the COVID era?

4- How should we reform the education system at all levels?

In my latest Catalyst TALKS interview, I sat down with Professor and Chair Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D., for a discussion of the role of education, specifically higher education to answer these questions and look for opportunities going forward.  We highlighted the data that shows that modern education in most public schools is not preparing students for the future world of work.  Specifically, he is most concerned about young males of color that are falling behind all of their peers in nearly every measurable category.  We also discussed the role of teaching and learning in a world where new technologies like artificial intelligence are shaping the future.  In addition, we highlight organizations like Texas 2036 that are also operating in the same space to make sure more of the workforce are prepared with the skills needed for the jobs of the 21st Century.

Here is our full video of our conversation, and below is a full transcript of our entire conversation.


Joseph Kopser:

Welcome to what is this, the 10th of June. I’m here with my new friend, doctor and professor Victor Saenz with the University of Texas School of Education. We’re going to forego his very long and distinguished bio. It’s all in the comment section below. So what we want to do is find out how you’re doing, Victor, and then very quickly get into the discussion of the future role of education and the future workforce. But first, how are you doing? And how’s your family?

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Thank you, Joseph. I’m doing great. Thank you. We’re safe and healthy. And I certainly wish the same for everybody out there listening.

Joseph Kopser:

Absolutely. Our best go out to everybody. So let’s just jump right into it. You at the School of Education as a professor and chair are looking at some of the most important questions going forward. And oh, by the way, this was even before COVID. So what are you thinking now? What’s most important on your mind? And what can people be thinking about the fall semester?

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Thank you. Great question. I’ve been at UT 13 years on faculty there in the department of Ed Leadership and Policies. We train superintendents and school principals, we train higher ed administrators. And so much of what we do is helping to sort of redesign how we think about education in this state and this country, primarily through the means of training the next generation of educational leaders. As you might imagine, the last few months have completely disrupted everything we do in education. So it’s incumbent on us to ensure that the folks that we’re training to be those next gen leaders are ready to take on these challenges that are going to significantly and perhaps permanently alter the way we think about education in this state.

Joseph Kopser:

What do you think is harder going forward, the training of teachers, the training of administrators and the leadership at those schools at all levels, or perhaps even understanding how the parents fit into this with so much schooling going on at home?

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

How about all of the above?

Joseph Kopser:

Fair enough.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

You hit all the major areas. There’s no question that great schools have great leaders. And great schools, more importantly, have great teachers. So all those things are linked together. You show me a great school, I’m going to show you a collection of amazing teachers and an outstanding leader that can train up and develop those teachers. And also great schools have highly engaged parents. And we know that there’s a lot of disparity around that particular topic area that’s often aligned with the socioeconomic profile of the communities that these schools serve.

Not every community is able to fully engage in the way they can for their kids. They’ve got two jobs, they’ve got a variety of other demands on their time. So what we try to do in our department is train school leaders and administrators that recognize those disparities are in communities, that work actively to engage families, communities that surround the school, that are part of the school in an effort to raise up the entire profile of that community. And I think that the best school leaders are able to do all that.

Joseph Kopser:

Well, you talk about communities, and I know that from your biography and our conversations, that you’re very focused on a particular community with your project, Project MALES. I’ll bring up the website. Can you kind of explain the origin of it? And then we’ll talk a little bit about what you’re working on.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity. So I said I’ve been at UT 13 years. A few years into the work, as a lot of junior faculty, do you have to sort of define your own research area. And so early in my career, I was really interested in how can we get more boys and young men of color into college and career? If you look at all the educational outcomes data, it’s often that particular population of students that lags behind everybody else, just about compared to any other racial, ethnic group, subgroup, either within their gender, compared to females, et cetera. So boys and young men of color have for more than 30 years, as we’ve been tracking this data, track behind their peer group.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

So as a result of that, we developed sort of a research agenda that focused specifically on understanding what it is that’s going on with these boys. More importantly, what is it about the schooling structures and systems that are educating our boys of color that are serving to just sort of perpetuate these outcomes over and over? So Project MALES was born in direct response to that challenge that I would call it a statewide educational imperative. And we’re almost now in our 10th year.

Starting this fall, we turn 10 years old. And it’s basically three strategies: to do work locally, at the state level, and nationally. And locally, we have a very active mentoring program. We work with school districts in the central Texas area. We’re at 16 different schools. We provide undergraduate students at UT Austin as peer mentors to boys and men of color in middle schools and high schools.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

At the state level, we have a statewide consortium we developed seven years ago. We work across educational sectors, both K-12, community colleges, and four years to help advance knowledge and expertise around how better to serve our male students of color population. And then nationally, we do work through our research institute. We push out the latest and greatest research on these populations that we’re focused on. We work and collaborate with foundations and with researchers around the country on these issues. So we run the full gamut of this particular topic area, and we’re privileged to be able to work alongside some amazing partners around the country.

Joseph Kopser:

Well, speaking of partners, you talked about statewide opportunities. I first discovered the importance of preparing the future workforce, because the skills required in the economy, especially in the future by 2030, are a different set of skills than most people leaving high school, if they were lucky enough to graduate. So talk about what you’re thinking there. We’ve only got about four or five minutes left. What you’re thinking about how Project MALES fits into the overall conversation of opportunity and access for gaining jobs in the workforce of the 21st century.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Absolutely. Well, we know that a thriving Texas means that every sector of our population is thriving as opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. I think we can all agree that that’s an important priority for our state. But when we look closely at this data over and over again, year after year, we see that the population of students that is most at risk and often falling behind everybody else is this group of students, male students of color. So whatever we can do to help advance educational opportunity and success with this population means we’re lifting up the entire prospect, economic social prospect for the state of Texas. That’s often how we frame these issues. It’s important that we consider that within this population, I think we recognize is the future workforce of the state of Texas. So if we think about 60x30TX being one of the States major sort of higher ed policy agenda-

Joseph Kopser:

Yeah, I’m going to put that on the screen here real quick.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Very good. In that, in that agenda is a very, very key set of milestones, benchmarks that we want to hit as a state. And that is to ensure that our college age population goes to and through college and into career. And not just into career, but into viable careers, not just a job, in other words, but a vocation, something that’s going to help them lift themselves and their families and their communities and ultimately the entire state of Texas. We’re a few years into the 60x30TX plan. And I know one of the things it does is it helps to hold our communities, our higher institutions accountable to how well we’re serving all of our students, especially those that are often most vulnerable.

Joseph Kopser:

Yeah. And I know that Bill Hammond did a lot of work with that when he was at TAB, the Texas Association of Business, but it’s a whole team effort. As you said, it’s public private. And there’s new players in the game, so just kind of give a shout out to our friends over at Texas 2036. If you haven’t seen what they’re doing, I would highly recommend that you check out what they’re doing.

Because it’s data driven, trying to reduce the politics of it, much like the nonprofit that I’ve started, So as we wrap up, what are the things that if you’re a parent or you’re an employer, put yourself in either shoes or do both if you wish, about how they’re thinking about the return to the fall semester. What’s it going to look like for the workforce? What’s it going to look like in the classroom? And what recommendations do you have?

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Well, I think for parents, we have to recognize that we have to stay engaged and hold our schools and our school leaders accountable to ensuring that they’re providing an opportunity to every child within our communities to have an opportunity to learn. And that might mean laptops and hotspots, all those different ways that our young people are having to engage remotely in their learning. And so families need to be best positioned to advocate for the children. We recognize that not every parent is able to do that, perhaps because they lack the knowledge of how to navigate the system or perhaps even because they’re too deferential to those in positions of leadership. But I do think we’ve got to find the agency within ourselves to be able to engage and to advocate on behalf of our children.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

And I think for employers, recognize that look, higher ed has an important role to play in this post-COVID or during COVID era in reshaping and retooling the next generation of our workforce in the state of Texas. Higher education needs to be part of that solution, given that so many people not only are out of work right now, may be out of work for an extended period of time, and they’re going to need higher ed, they’re going to need post-secondary education, avenues and pathways to be able to retool and up-skill so that when they jump back into the workforce they are ready and can help support the economic recovery that eventually will come for the state of Texas.

Joseph Kopser:

Well, that is perfect advice for students, teachers, parents, and employers. So we’ve just gone past the 10 minute mark, so I’ll wrap up by simply saying, and this was an inside advantage I had being a proud father of a recent graduate of the University of Texas School of Education, my daughter Hadley, that ceremony you all had, even though it was online and it wasn’t in person, was still a fabulous ceremony with great advice, especially the keynote was remarkable. Anything you want to share with anybody from that special day to kind of take us home as we end the interview?

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

Yeah. Well, Dr. Garcia, Juliet Garcia was our keynote. She is one of my sheroes and has been for most of my career, former university president within the UT system. And I think she lived her life as an example to us all about the opportunity to be able to build a career anchored in faith, and anchored also in trying to do right by her community, and ultimately lifting up the opportunity for all students, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what their background might be, and giving them a viable opportunity to succeed. She’s a testament to that as part of the message she delivered. And I think that’s an important charge for all of us to consider as we look ahead into the uncertain future for this state and for this country.

Joseph Kopser:

Well said. I couldn’t agree more. My phrase to capture that same sentiment about her role modeling is that “people will be what they can see.” And she provided such a great roadmap going forward. So Victor, thanks for being a part of this. I’m going to sign you off, and then I look forward to seeing you out and about as soon as we can.

Victor B. Saenz, Ph.D.:

All right, take care, Joseph. Thank you.

Joseph Kopser:

Take care. So that was my conversation with Victor Saenz at the University of Texas School of Education. It is about understanding the workforce of the 21st century and how we as organizations, public and nonprofit, private, all figure out ways to adapt to the changing future of work. I’m Joseph Kopser. If there are other people or topics that you’d like to have on Catalyst TALKS, send me a note. And please be safe. Stay home, stay healthy, and stay connected. Talk to you later. Bye.


More on Professor Saenz:

Victor B. Sáenz, Ph.D. is Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin and a Professor in the Program in Higher Education Leadership (PHEL). He is a Fellow in the Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair in Community College Leadership, and he also holds courtesy appointments with the Center for Mexican American Studies, the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute, the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, and the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.

Since 2008 he has also been a Faculty Fellow with the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE). Dr. Sáenz has published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and recently published two books, including one on Latino males in higher education (Stylus Publishing, 2016). His current research agenda seeks to advance research-informed best practices and policy solutions that improve educational outcomes for underserved students in postsecondary education, with a special emphasis on young men of color.

Joseph Kopser of Grayline Group is host of Catalyst TALKS.  A series of live, interactive interviews with thought leaders, subject matter experts and operators with first hand experience in the skills needed to lead the workplace in a changing world.  His talks focus on the technology, agility, leadership, knowledge, and strategy needed to build teams in a changing world.  Joseph is also co-founder of the non-profit USTomorrow focused on workforce readiness.   Joseph’s focus is to work with people adapt to the changing future of work.


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