This essay is a part of the Scientific American & Macmillan Learning STEM Summit. The STEM Summit is an annual event that attracts diverse stakeholders, ranging from teachers, policy makers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and students. The theme of the 2019 Summit is “The Future of Work,” and will explore critical questions such as: What are we doing to prepare students for careers in our automated future? What skills—both “hard” and “soft”—will students need to thrive in the “4th Industrial Revolution”? And what strategies, tools and technologies will best help students achieve that success? You can learn more about the annual event here, and view the livestream of this year’s Summit here on Thursday, September 26th.

Over the past half-century, we’ve been incredibly effective at treating school and college as distinct elements from work and a career. Nothing is more indicative of this trend than our belief, inherent in the system we’ve designed, that the best human development arises from being in school for 13 to 17 years and then going to work for the next 45 years or so. This belief, and the system that perpetuates it, has probably never worked very well. And it’s entirely broken in today’s globally competitive and rapidly changing marketplace.

Right now, in the U.S., we have more jobs open than people looking for work. So why aren’t we at 100 percent employment? And why do we see fresh reports suggesting that 40 percent or more of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed? There are a number answers, including the decreasing mobility of the U.S. population; a misalignment between what’s being taught in school and what’s needed in the workplace; and marketplace dynamics where fast-growing jobs are outpacing our ability to train people for them. All of these factors point to a skills gap of one kind or another.

With young people becoming a shrinking demographic, and with uncertainty about future immigration policy, U.S. employers must be ready to confront the notion that skills gaps won’t be solved the old way. There is no guarantee of new workers coming into the talent pipeline. Nor can we rely on the current education system to generate the right number of properly skilled graduates. Rather this situation will require retraining and “upskilling” existing talent and reengineering our current educational model to better prepare students for workplace success. This is not a one-time effort but should be thought of as an ongoing, lifelong process.

The remaking of existing talent will require much closer partnerships between education providers and employers, which will give rise to new models where employers become educators themselves (Amazon’s recent $700-million investment in talent development, almost entirely run by internal training in the company, is a good example). And our current education model will need to become substantially more applied and work-integrated.

There’s a pile of evidence about the most effective “education.” Summarized, it points to relationship-rich and work-integrated learning experiences. The most important aspects include working on long-term projects that take a semester or more to complete and having a job or internship where you can apply what you are learning in the classroom. Both experiences double the odds that graduates will be engaged and successful in their work later. And graduates who had an internship during college are twice as likely to have a good job waiting for them upon graduation, too. The problem is less than one third of college graduates have had such experiences. The fact that these things aren’t requirements for graduation is a true shame. But we can certainly do more—very quickly—to change all this.

What might a merger of education and work look like? Here’s a peek:

  • Co-ops and “credegrees” will become staples of a college education across all majors, including the liberal arts. (Co-ops are typically semester-long work experiences pedagogically tied to the course of study in most cases. Credegrees refers to the combination of a bachelor’s degree with an industry-recognized credential or skill.) Liberal arts degrees will continue to thrive—but only in combination with work-related experiences and when blended with industry-relevant skills training. An art history major with a cybersecurity designation or data-science proficiency will be a white-hot graduate in the marketplace.
  • Employers will shift from being passive consumers of education (simply hiring graduates) to making education and training a core strategy of their success. This will include much more active and employer-designed partnerships with educational institutions. There will also be examples of employer-designed universities—created from the ground up to serve the critical upskilling needs of a large employer’s workforce. And if educational institutions and accreditors aren’t fast to evolve on this front, there will certainly be more examples where employers effectively replace educational institutions by creating their own fully operated education and training functions.
  • A “go pro early” model will become a very attractive pathway for both students and employers to enable hiring of highly talented students, directly out of high school, into full-time job and career tracks where a college degree is part of the package. In other words, instead of going to college to get a job, more people will seek a job to go to college. There are already many working adults who are pursuing their college degrees online; this will become much more prevalent for traditional-age students through a go pro early model.

In short, educational institutions will increasingly move toward applied and work-integrated models of learning. And employers will increasingly weave learning and retraining into the fabric of the workplace. This evolution can’t happen fast enough.