By Audrey Russo, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Technology Council
With the explosion of co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators, technology parks or whatever the new manifestations of business building are referred to now, we are certainly at a time when what we refer to as “work” has new descriptors. The analysis of these causes are endless, and from my point of view, newer behaviors of what we refer to as “work” are evident, impacting talent attraction as well as the proliferation of changing beliefs about “work.” Technology has brought us to this next era of “work.” The continued optimization of traditional work processes means that people are no longer performing dangerous or repetitive jobs. Technologically driven processes, particularly in North America, allow us to perform the same work with less people all while improving safety and higher production. Innovation has compounded at every business touch-point. We have moved away from physical repetition to what is referred to as cerebral or knowledge work. This explosion of alternative work and learning models are not a fad. This is how the new world learns and exudes impact.
However, our educational institutions have not kept pace with these changes in the business world. While we wrestle with the enormous task of revamping curriculums to match the demands of the professional realm, the skills currently being taught from the preschool to postsecondary levels are largely not applicable in our innovation-driven economy. The lag is considerable and worrisome to say the least. Shifts toward new models of education, such as home schooling, private schools, and new standards of learning are encouraging, but are not nearly to the scale the modern U.S. economy requires.
What has occurred as a result of this lag in education? A sustained level of unemployment higher than we have ever witnessed in the recorded history of labor statistics. There are other troubling realities that could be attributed to this shortcoming. It could be both simple and complex as this: the preparedness of our workforce is woefully misaligned with the evolving demands of the business world. Combine this with the fact that an entire sector of experienced middle managers suffered a permanent setback during the most recent economic downturn, and the sustained unemployment rates and economic stagnation we are currently experiencing is not at all surprising.
There is a silver lining to our current dilemma however. As with all seismic shifts, new formations and new ways of working are inevitable. More so than ever before, we are witnessing a growing sect of workers who, out of either desire or, more likely, out of necessity, are experimenting with their ideas, and ultimately their lives, to start new ventures. Technology has made the process behind developing ideas and rapid market deployment much easier. We first witnessed this new reality during the Internet boom of the late 1990s, when entrepreneurship entered the mainstream, and now see its manifestation again as entrepreneurship has become a widely accepted career path for recent graduates, as well as experienced middle aged professionals who were forced to reinvent themselves (Paul Graham**).
The collision of efficiency, technology, angel investing, and speed to market (particularly in areas other than life sciences and biotech) have made innovation-driven entrepreneurship a staple of our economy and a reliable engine in creating new wealth. We must embrace the new ways of working that incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces are popularizing. Critics will say that these entrepreneurial-based models are merely a temporary stop-gap while our economy recovers and the large, traditional corporations regain their footing in the international economy. To dismiss these collaborative ways of working and creating as a fad or trend is a mistake. We must embrace and foster the skills that are essential to innovation because it is the new world order.
For proof of this reality, one needs to look no further than our largest corporations, who desperately search for innovation engines on a daily basis and actively foster a culture of “intrapreneurship” to drive new product development and increase sources of revenue generation. While we are immersed in these shifts, I find it crucial to take an aerial view of what is actually occurring with the intention of positioning the work we do at the Pittsburgh Technology Council as contributory to the business community; concerning ourselves with how we provide strategic and innovative support, to overcome impediments to ensure our region’s acceleration into this next era. Our team is both lucky and privileged to work alongside the captains of all these industries, who have either leveraged technology to remain competitive or built solutions to drive efficiency. I know that our work in public policy must be forward-thinking, not incremental. It also means our perspective about learning and talent development must be disruptive; understanding that creating and making are inherent of curricula at all education levels. Both physical and computational skills must be developed simultaneously; these skill sets cannot be bifurcated to be useful in our innovation-driven global economy.
As I look at the explosion of incubators and co-working spaces, I see how the next generation of big ideas are occurring. The collision of the human spirit paired with fortitude, desire and autonomy illustrates that learning outside of traditional environments is the path to prosperity. These are skills that ensure self reliance; after all, working in one job, for one company, throughout a lifetime, is not expected. Why would we do anything other than embrace the proliferation of these new micro economies?