‘Bridge builders’ are hastening a global shift toward the work of the future: human work
Human Work and Learning

‘Bridge builders’ are hastening a global shift toward the work of the future: human work

Factory worker with braided red hair in orange safety suit, hardhat, COVID mask and glove operates a complex control panel with dozens of dials and buttons and a built-in flat panel screen.

Nations everywhere are grappling with how to prepare for the work of the future, and finding new reasons for optimism as the global economy digs out from the wreckage caused by COVID-19.

Some of this effort reflects what I found while writing my new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.” In the book I argue that artificial intelligence, automation, and other technology, far from creating an apocalyptic loss of jobs, will likely increase opportunity—for those with the education and training to embrace the kinds of work that only people can do.

I think we’ll see growth especially in four categories of uniquely human endeavor: the “helpers” who excel in customer service and human interaction; “integrators” who synthesize knowledge and apply it in personal ways, as teachers and social workers do; “creators” who combine technical skills with deep creativity (architects, game designers); and “bridgers” who combine tech knowledge with people skills (IT help desk professionals, car-repair managers).

“Bridge Builders” needed

I like the metaphor of bridges as a way to think about linking human needs and social resources. For example, the need to build bridges between our siloed education and work systems is a key theme in a new report from Lumina Foundation and Strada Education Network called “Bridge Builders: How Intermediaries Can Connect Education and Work in a Post-Pandemic World.” The report makes it clear that the global pandemic, resulting economic distress, and concern about racial inequity have highlighted the need for coordination between education and work.

Countries are addressing these issues in different ways, but what they often have in common is the use of intermediaries—bridge builders—to fill the crucial role of connecting employers, educators, current workers, and prospective workers.

These intermediaries help spur lower-cost, shorter-term training with a local focus. They simplify and promote paths to quality employment with an emphasis on advising, apprenticeships, and internships for students at all levels. And they push education providers and employers to communicate more effectively—with one another and with learners in general.

Some examples:

New Zealand established Workforce Development Councils to determine what skills and training are needed for the workforce of the future. These councils set standards, develop qualifications and shape curriculum, and advise on investment in vocational education.

In England, the Civic University Commission was created to determine how the country’s universities can best serve nationally and globally in the 21st century.

Singapore has built SkillsFuture, a national movement that gives people the opportunity “to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points.” Emphasizing the idea of continuous learning, the program boasts that “no matter where you are in life—schooling years, early career, mid-career or silver years—you will find a variety of resources to help you attain mastery of skills.”

The Australian Industry Group has created its “higher apprentice” model that, in one case, combines 22 weeks of study at Swinburne University of Technology and 26 weeks of hands-on training at Siemens, one of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient technologies.

In the United States, Detroit Drives Degrees, a group led by the Detroit Regional Chamber, is trying to raise the proportion of adults with post-high school education to 60 percent by 2030. Its three-pronged approach is to advance access to post-high school opportunities, boost student success, and retain local talent while attracting new talent.

The Mobile Area Education Foundation works with school districts, business and civic leaders across Mobile County, Alabama, to increase the chances that students will graduate ready for college and careers.

Hard, but it can be done

Ultimately, intermediaries are leaders, not only connecting education and employment but holding everyone accountable for the results. Their role is central to changing systems to align with the work of the future—work that requires empathy, compassion, ethics, collaboration, and communication.

“The work is hard,” the Bridge Builders report says. “But experiences from around the world show it can be done.”

“Whatever particular problems a given city, region, or community is trying to solve, intermediaries that tailor efforts to the unique needs of time and place—individual, institutional, and economic—will have the best prospect of lifting these places to more prosperous futures.”


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

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