Filling the High-Tech Recruitment Gap by Upskilling Non-STEM Talent

Free trade pacts and outsourcing are often blamed for the loss of American jobs, but global CEOs at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, felt that robots, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) will be the main contributors to this problem in the future.

Many efficient new technologies are emerging to support humans in manufacturing and business, including robotics, driverless cars, AI systems and 3-D printers. These shifts will obviously result in the creation of many new high-skilled jobs. In turn, business leaders are recognizing the importance of lifelong learning to help workers stay relevant in this quickly changing world.

As more businesses adopt automation, many jobs are being automated, which disrupts the lives of many workers. By 2020, more than 7 million jobs are expected to be lost to technology, according to the World Economic Forum's "The Future of Jobs" report.

To stay competitive and responsive in this climate, the private sector must develop new programs to retrain displaced white-collar workers in strategic fields such as data analytics, computer science, and entrepreneurship. Displaced factory workers will need upskilling to perform new high-paid jobs in advanced manufacturing, such as the production and servicing of solar panels and connected devices. Going forward, all types of workers will be well served to continually reskill and upskill themselves throughout their careers to navigate our rapidly evolving business landscape. In the future, education will not simply be a four-year steppingstone from college to a chosen profession – it will be a lifelong learning process that embraces ongoing change.

"I think what we're reaching now is a time when we may have to find alternative careers through our lifetime," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained in an interview with Reuters at Davos.

Northeastern University strongly believes that the U.S. economy depends on a dynamic, technically skilled workforce to stay competitive. Northeastern and other educational institutions are tackling this problem through innovative programs that enable workers without technical backgrounds to earn master's degrees in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Northeastern University-Silicon Valley has a new program called ALIGN, which trains workers from non-science backgrounds for new STEM careers.

We should not worry about these inevitable changes or fear becoming slaves to our computers. Rather, we should embrace the concept of "humanics," in which humans and smart machines can coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship. As the machines become smarter and more powerful, they will enable humans to become lifelong learners who are more agile and nimble.

The World Economic Forum report states that by 2020 two million new jobs will be added in the STEM disciplines, driving the need to upskill educated people with new knowledge and experience. Hybrid learning blends conventional classroom lectures with flexible online classes and co-op job opportunities. A hybrid educational model becomes the ideal format for growth because it emphasizes the development of real-world job skills.

Filling the High-Tech Jobs Gap With Non-STEM Trained Employees

A proven approach to meeting the high demand for STEM grads is to utilize the transferrable skills and critical thinking of our current non-STEM talent. By identifying people from diverse backgrounds who want to be reskilled for high-value tech jobs and matching them with the coursework they need to obtain STEM degrees, we can fill the critical jobs needed to meet tech industry demands.

One strategy involves the option of offering STEM "bridge courses" toward graduate STEM degrees for workers with non-STEM backgrounds. In addition, by partnering more closely with tech companies, educational institutions can create curricula designed to meet the timely demands of these cutting-edge STEM domains.

Such courses are structured to be interactive, experiential, and participatory. Along with online and classroom learning modules, these courses are supplemented by co-ops and internships to provide alternative means for young people and career-changers to branch into STEM careers. Such transition programs are critical for achieving diversity and increasing the competitiveness of the American STEM workforce.

Our country is being challenged by a hyper-competitive global economy powered by groundbreaking new technologies. These technologies include big data analytics, real-time platforms for stock trading, the internet of things, virtual reality, unmanned aerial drones, genomics, biotech, nanotech, and so much more.

The growing worldwide push for new technological innovation will continue to create an acute demand for data analysts and computer scientists to make sense of so much raw information. Rather than starting from scratch, the best approach is to retrain existing workers with new skills in data analytics and computer science for the 21st century workforce. By filling this recruitment gap, the U.S. can ensure its competitive advantage in the rapidly changing global economy and thus protect more workers from job-stealing robots and automated machines.

PK Agarwal is CEO and regional dean of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and former CTO for California under Governor Schwartzenegger.