Preparing for the rise of ‘new collar’ jobs

It’s clear that the future of many industries relies on workers that are well-trained in technology, software, and coding, but ensuring that workers are up to the task is an extremely difficult problem. Chris Hopfensberger is the founding executive director of Software.org, where he leads efforts to help policymakers and the public prepare for the jobs of the future.

ABERMAN: Well, over the last year in particular, there’s been a lot of discussion about STEM education and skills development here in the D.C. region, because of our talent shortage. What does STEM mean to you, and why is STEM so important?

HOPFENSBERGER: There is some much focus on STEM these days, as a parent of three school-age children. I think first of STEM in the educational setting, that introductory educational setting for young kids. We need to get kids more exposed to technology, and to the skills that they will need for the jobs of the future. And we also need to get them ready to be flexible. I think one thing that I’ve learned over the course of my career, going from journalist to lawyer to educator, that is the most important thing, and a huge part of that is technology.

Fortunately, I think software companies and the industry itself is really kind of helping drive that, because we constantly have to relearn something. I tell my kids, you will be able to stay in the workforce because you’re going learn from moving from one phone, to a desktop, from one video game system to another, all of those things build in that flexibility.

But then, the STEM education piece itself is, how are we exposing folks to tech? How are we exposing them to the skills that we need, and how are we making sure that they can continue to be adaptable over time? That’s something we need to think about in schools, but also as part of a lifelong learning process in the workforce, et cetera.

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ABERMAN: I would completely agree. For example, I look at artificial intelligence, and depending on who you ask, and which study you read, is either going to create job displacement, or create new jobs, and it would seem the difference making is going to be: do we teach people how to work with technology, or does technology eat them?

HOPFENSBERGER: Absolutely. I think that is exactly it. And we tend to focus on the life and times that we live, and where we are in the world, and we forget the kinds of revolutions that we have gone through before. Before there were cars, everyone had a horse, and everybody needed horseshoes. And you have entire industries set up around building wagons, and supporting the horse industry. You invent cars, and suddenly, you need people paving roads, you need people fixing engines.

My best friend growing up in school, his dad was an auto mechanic. He shut down his garage recently because he said, I’m not a mechanic anymore, I’m a computer technician. You don’t come in and change the oil, you come in and the first thing you do is you plug that car in, and you pull down the diagnostics, and you look at it on a computer screen. All of these new technologies are going to change jobs. They are going to create jobs, as well.

ABERMAN: Which leads me to ask: since you’re involved in advocating education to make more people able to compete in technology, where are you seeing approaches in workforce training really working, and what can we learn from them as we attempt to deal with the tens of thousands of jobs that are currently available in the region that aren’t being filled?

HOPFENSBERGER: Absolutely. So, we did a study last year that looked at the software industry’s impact across the entire United States. People tend to think of software, they think of California. If they are a little bit deeper into it, they think of Texas, they certainly think of this area, Maryland and Virginia and the strong software industry in those places, but just software jobs grew fastest in the last couple of years in Kansas and Indiana.

And those places are looking at this and realizing, we have ton of jobs that are being created, and we have a real shortfall on what can we do about that. Indiana has created a project where you get free in-state certificate education, to really target those in-demand careers. I think that is something that we take for granted sometimes, is that job retraining programs are available, but they need to be focused on the skills that are in demand, and focused on filling those jobs that are out there.

ABERMAN: Do you think that the current bifurcation that many people make between a university education and a technical education, in some ways hold us back from really addressing these challenges?

HOPFENSBERGER: Absolutely. So, we talk a lot about the shortage of coders, and that is a real problem for the software industry. But, there is a shortage as well for people who are using software-enabled things, or are in software-enabled jobs. So, our organization issued a report earlier this year talking about software manufacturing.

It is not necessarily the manufacturing plant of yesterday anymore. People are using CAD and CAM tools. They’re working with software on the line as these products are being developed and made. So, we need to be thinking about software jobs, filling software jobs, creating software, but also then using software tools in other fields.

ABERMAN: In other words, stop thinking about blue collar and white collar, and think new collar.

HOPFENSBERGER: Absolutely. Software certificates and cybersecurity certificates, CAD/CAM certificates, all of these are hugely important. You don’t need college degrees for a lot of these jobs.

ABERMAN: Alright Chris, I have you for thirty seconds left. I’m gonna to ask you a question I bet you wish everybody would ask. You’re king for a day, what would you do to change things?

HOPFENSBERGER: I would focus a lot more attention, and a lot more funding, on those software education pieces. We focus too much time on getting people into college degrees. Those are hugely important, but not everyone needs a college degree. How can we get those software skills to everybody out there, and how can we dispel the notion that you have to be some kind of math genius to do software jobs? Because you don’t. I can do it, that says it right there.

ABERMAN: Well, if you can do it. I still can’t do it, but still, Chris Hopfensberger, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

HOPFENSBERGER: Thank you Jonathan, appreciate it.