Labor market data tell us that these “hybrid” jobs are rapidly on the rise. According to a report by workforce analytics firm Burning Glass, more than a quarter million such positions opened up between April 2014 and March 2015. These jobs—many of them in high paying fields like user experience design—call for skill sets that aren’t customarily taught as a package. For example, positions in mobile development, which combines skills from engineering, coding, and computer science, have grown by 135 percent since 2011.
What does this mean for colleges and universities? If the new jobs that are emerging are increasingly hybrid, then the programs of study may need to become hybridized as well.
My own discussions with employers across a range of industries back this up. In addition to confirming the well-known shortage of talent in STEM fields, they say that the employees who are in highest demand are those who can work in complex teams and think across complex systems. Employers are looking for the sort of professional who can lead a team that includes, for instance, an engineer, a coder, and a data scientist, effectively understanding all the distinct roles and coordinating across them.
The right type of education for nurturing this kind of “systems thinking” capacity needs to be both broad and deep; expertise in a single domain won’t suffice. For example, Pete McCabe, Vice President of Global Services at GE Transportation, recently mentioned that his industry is in need of more “quarterbacks”: in other words, systems thinkers who oversee a team of specialists to solve a common problem. “Knowing how to plug, knowing where to push,” he says. “I’d give my left pinky for ten more of those people.”
Likewise, Andrea Cox, of GE’s Aviation Engineering division, describes how their teams might be made of hundreds of specialists, ranging from material engineers to designers, all of them thinking about different elements of an airplane’s engine design. All of them, though, have to be able to grasp the wider endeavor of keeping a plane in the air. “A design engineer has to understand how a part operates,” she notes, “but also how it fits into the design of its module, and then how the module fits into an engine, and how the engine fits into an airplane.”
To be sure, in the economy of the future, a typical employee still will need deep knowledge of one domain, or more. But how can colleges teach a broader form of systems thinking to tomorrow’s graduates? I believe it involves three key elements: thematic study across disciplines, project-based learning, and experiential opportunities. For example, at the university I lead, students interested in sustainability don’t just study environmental science. Rather, they also take courses that expose them to relevant concepts in engineering, physics, economics, data analysis, health sciences, urban planning, and the law—the range of disciplines they’d likely encounter if they worked on sustainability in the real world.
Furthermore, the courses students take don’t consider these subjects in silos. Instead, they feature hands-on projects that give students the opportunity to synthesize knowledge across different fields—for instance, building “biomimetic” robots that move like sea creatures, and are equipped with sensors that can measure shifts in ocean temperatures.
Finally, experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and co-ops, can give students an opportunity to apply this synthesis in an on-the-ground context, with all its nuances and idiosyncrasies. For example, one of our students recently tested her learning by working at a co-op with the Panama Canal Authority—where, among other things, she led a project to design and cost out rainwater harvesting systems to benefit rural schools within the canal’s watershed. By requiring her to integrate concepts from engineering, environmental science, economics, and more, the experience was an immersion into how systems thinking plays out in the real world.
Indeed, students may need even more than all this to master the jobs and skill sets that will be the hallmarks of our future economy. That’s because beyond the rise of complex teams in workplaces, we’re also seeing the emergence of complex systems architecture in the world around us—in other words, the increasingly intricate nexus between hardware, software, and human beings. Our smartphones are becoming ever more sophisticated, driverless cars will soon be on our roads, and we’re seeing the dawn of the Internet of Things.
Ultimately, this highly connected world will usher in a new era of higher education—one that is focused on helping students understand how deeply networked systems of people, programs, and machines join together to make our workplaces function.
Like society itself, the job market is becoming ever more complex. By exposing students to systems thinking, higher education can prepare them to do the systems-oriented work needed for tomorrow’s jobs.