Dec. 11, 2023
This article was produced for New America's Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy. Subscribe to our Future of Work Updates & Events newsletter to stay current on our latest work. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
The “Future of Work” means different things to different people.
Some immediately turn to technology. They believe the Future of Work will be highly technical, dominated by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and augmentation. Through this lens, the focus is on strategies to maximize the benefits of technology while mitigating the unintended consequences of tech’s impact on work and workers.
Ask others about how they envision the Future of Work, and they will raise questions and ideas about America’s socio-economic fabric. The country is changing. By 2032, people of color are estimated to comprise the majority of the working class in America. For the first time, five generations are in the workforce together. Between 2012 and 2022, the share of Americans reporting to identify as LGBTQ+ more than doubled. In a more politically polarized America, the future of work is about navigating political differences among co-workers alongside generational, racial, and cultural variance. Additionally, the pandemic highlighted the plights of underpaid and overworked essential workers, and job quality is now in the mainstream lexicon in Washington, DC. Pandemic-induced cultural narratives about work such as “quiet quitting,” the Great Resignation, and flexible work due to more ubiquitous digitalization and remote work have been prominent Future of Work themes, along with growing support for labor unions.
But talk to people outside of Washington, DC, and the picture becomes even clearer. We had the unique opportunity, afforded through HP’s Future of Work Academy, to communicate directly with community college students to hear how they view the Future of Work. Community colleges are critical for the innovation economy, and what we learned provides insights for leaders making decisions, setting policy, and building opportunities around the Future of Work.
Students were refreshingly direct with us, sharing their perspectives about what work will look like, what skills they believe will be important, and providing ideas and opportunities for their employers, institutions, and policymakers to better center their needs going forward. What they told us fell into five big themes.
1) The Future is Digital
Community college students have no doubts that they will be working with, through, and around technology in the future. They emphasized the importance of digital skills and opportunities for building digital skills but didn’t appear to have much anxiety over acquiring those skills.
While several of the community college students we talked to were working toward credentials in IT and technology fields, we heard very little about finding jobs in the tech industry. Instead, what students seemed to understand intuitively is that all roles, no matter what industry they were in, will require digital skills in the future.
2) Community College Students Understand Human Skills
All the recent research about how AI is poised to upend the job market points to human skills—the durable or “soft” skills that enable human-centered work to happen—taking center stage. The community college students we talked to understood that. We asked them what skills they thought would be most important in the future, and they responded with "communication skills, flexibility and adaptability, a go-getter attitude, and the ability to work in ambiguity."
Our student panelists also recognized the disruptive power of AI and acknowledged how they envisioned working alongside technology frequently, but they were more measured about AI replacing human skills. Abby, a student in Colorado, said, “AI can be used as a helper with some tasks, but it can’t replace the real work. It can’t do everything for me.” Raul, a student in California, shared, “I don’t feel that AI will use the words that I would, that it would express my ideas.”
Importantly, for students themselves, the human interaction they receive on campus is vitally important to their success. Abby repeatedly lauded a professional coordinator on her campus, who she called a “lynchpin,” someone she trusts and who helps her make connections and process information and decisions.
3) Community College Students Seek Flexibility and Job Quality
The students we talked to, like many workers in the workforce, are seeking opportunities for remote and hybrid work. They emphasized that they expect how work gets done, and how well it gets done, will be more important than where work gets done.
They also highlighted that they expect good jobs, with good healthcare coverage and good work-life balance. Community colleges are taking a more active stance in promoting job quality for their students, partnering with employers and increasingly labor unions for fair pay and equitable working conditions.
Angelica, a student in Northern Virginia, works full-time for the local government. "What makes me most excited about the Future of Work is flexible work. I would love to see more 4-day workweek options. More employers are willing to embrace change.”
4) Growth and Advancement are Priorities
Recent research is consistently pointing to the fact that opportunities for growth and advancement are priorities for frontline workers. McKinsey reported that more than 70 percent of frontline workers are seeking promotions within their companies, while Kahoot!’s 2023 Workplace Culture Report indicates that 93 percent of frontline workers are eager for more learning and development opportunities and 91 percent want to advance in their careers. Our student panelists were no different. They were studying for a good job and expected to “grow with the job” in the future, and expected to learn along the way.
5) Community College Students Need Applied Learning Opportunities
Across the board, through our surveys and interviews, community college students demanded more opportunities for applied learning and blended work-and-learn experiences. Improved access to high-quality, paid internships, apprenticeships, and even improved work-study were mentioned as ways that colleges could better support students to compete in the Future of Work.
A faculty member joined one of our interview calls. She echoed this demand, especially for students in technical fields. “We are always finding ways to practice, especially if students aren’t already working in the industry,” she said. “Whatever technology you’re learning, the theory is one thing—knowing how to apply that theory in the real world is the important thing.”
Community colleges and the students they educate are on the frontlines of the Future of Work. They understand what is coming and they are preparing for it. The question is how deeply decision-makers will listen to them.
Haley Glover is the Director of Upskill America, an initiative of the Aspen Institute's Economic Opportunities Program.
Shalin Jyotishi is the Senior Advisor for Education, Labor, and the Future of Work at New America. He leads New America’s Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy.