In less than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the global economy. Millions of workers have been furloughed or, worse, face job loss. Even those fortunate enough to keep their jobs are experiencing massive change — working from home, tackling new responsibilities, and often facing reduced or altered schedules. And, a new distinction between workers — essential versus non-essential — has taken on enormous importance.

All of this change has far-reaching consequences for training and education, whether inside or outside the work setting — consequences that we still don’t fully understand or appreciate.

The Great Accelerator

The forces that are propelling the transformation of work were well established long before COVID-19 forced the issue. Indeed, some call the pandemic the “great accelerator,” because it is rapidly moving us into a future no one can fully imagine.

Long-term, the overwhelming force driving changes in work is not the pandemic but technology — that is, the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to perform an ever-increasing array of tasks. As a result, the work of the future will be the work that only people can do: human work.

But we can’t just wait for this future. We need to confront it, to find ways to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to learn the higher-level thinking and technical skills that human work requires. And to do so, we must rethink our systems of education and training.

Human Work

In human work, skills and knowledge matter, but workers need to be able to apply them to solve problems in ever-changing environments.

As AI-enhanced technology extends its reach in fields such as health care, education, retail and hospitality, people are needed more than ever to focus on the human element. Much of the work of the future involves helping and serving others — using technology and other resources to help people overcome problems.

Think about information technology (IT) professionals who regularly apply their technical knowledge to solve co-workers’ problems in real-world situations. Without well-developed human abilities such as abstract reasoning, interpersonal communication and empathy, how effective can they be? Those human abilities will be increasingly vital in a future in which smart machines can take over routine tasks.

Integrating Education and Training

One implication of this shift is that all workers must have the opportunity to continue learning throughout their lives and careers. One-time, short-term job training doesn’t cut it anymore. Nor can we expect people to bounce back and forth between education and employment — going “back to school” if they lose a job or want to change career paths and then trying to re-enter the job market.

In an economy based on human work, working and learning must go hand in hand. Indeed, our workplaces offer some of the richest environments for learning.

Another reason to integrate working and learning is that our traditional approaches to both training and education have broken down. We continue to view them as fundamentally different and separate; what people learn in one system is often not recognized by the other.

But in the world of human work, it’s obvious that neither option — training devoid of broader learning or education devoid of preparation for work — will give people what they need. Instead, we must redesign these separate systems into a broad, integrated system designed to foster both types — broad integrative learning and narrower technical learning — because people will need both throughout their lives.

We needn’t look far for examples of what this redesigned system might look like. The Toyota plant in Princeton, Ind., is adding jobs as it gears up to produce 420,000 Highlander SUVs each year. To prepare workers for those jobs, Toyota set up a two-year program to provide the higher-level learning they require. While employed full time, students split their time between courses on campus and structured learning on the job. Unlike in some employer-led programs, graduates earn an industry-recognized credential in advanced manufacturing. The “education” and “training” parts of the experience are fully integrated into a dynamic learning environment.

To move to an integrated learning system, we need everyone — employers, educators and worker-learners — to speak the same language when it comes to knowledge and skills. For workers to find good jobs and advance their careers, they must understand the knowledge and skills they will need. For employers to ensure that workers learn what they need to perform well in their jobs, they need to know the specific knowledge and skills their jobs require.

COVID-19 has exposed critical deficiencies in our approach to education and training. We now live in a world where jobs and careers can change swiftly — whether because of a pandemic or disruptive technology. Now is the time to redesign and reengineer education and training into an integrated system focused on delivering the learning we all need: the learning that prepares us for human work.