Business Education in a ‘Jetsons’ World

Our students will feel the impact of the new-collar economy shift. Here’s how we must help them prepare.

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THIS ECONOMY IS almost exactly the one we were promised. Decades ago, when we imagined the future, the world looked like the one depicted in “The Jetsons,” where people commuted to work in flying cars and managed robots from their desks by hitting an array of multi-hued buttons. Admittedly, we don’t yet have flying cars (though we may soon have autonomous ones). But the Jetsons-esque world we dreamt of is finally being realized.

So why are we unprepared? As director of Purdue University’s business information and analytics center, I spend much of my time ruminating on technology’s effect on the future of business and the workforce. I believe that companies’ desire for cost-cutting, combined with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, will dramatically increase automation, leading to a sharp decline in jobs. In fact, in its 2018 “The Future of Jobs” report, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, 75 million jobs will be lost as a consequence of automation.

Most of these lost jobs will belong to blue-collar workers in the manufacturing sector. But, as autonomous cars become more commonplace and AI grows more sophisticated, even truck drivers and financial advisors could end up almost extinct.

It’s encouraging to learn that the World Economic Forum also expects that 133 million new jobs eventually will be created by automation. But where will these job opportunities be? The answer will depend on the level of job. Blue-collar jobs will be replaced by “new-collar” jobs, a term made popular by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty to describe positions that don’t require a four-year degree but take a certain amount of technical or vocational training. At the same time, white-collar workers will be pressed to learn to use technology to create value for their organizations.

But even if many of tomorrow’s workers won’t need four-year degrees, our universities won’t suddenly become obsolete. Future workers will simply need different skills than today’s college courses emphasize—and that means that we need to change the skills we teach.


In August, CNBC reported that there are approximately 6.56 million unemployed workers, while there also are approximately 6.6 million unfilled jobs. The problem is that the workers available don’t have the technological skills the unfilled jobs require. More than 50 percent of Business Roundtable’s members report that talent gaps are already “problematic or very problematic” for their companies. IBM alone needs to fill 25,000 positions in the next four years.

But here’s the good news: Companies have been partnering with educational institutions to launch abbreviated training programs to create a steady pipeline of talent. For example, Microsoft has given US$25 million to fund Skillful, a program that fosters skills-based hiring, training, and education. And Rometty led IBM to invest $1 billion in initiatives such as Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a sixyear public high school that first opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 2011. Through the P-TECH model, students receive four years of high school education plus two years of college courses that prepare them for new-collar careers. Currently, 110 P-TECH schools are open in the U.S.

The creation of new-collar jobs will offset job losses caused by automation, but workers must be trained to fill those positions. Companies and academic institutions must promote awareness of short-duration programs and remove any stigma around vocational training.


For white-collar workers, the future economy will value four higher-level skills: coding, analytics, design, and interpersonal. Workers with coding and analytics skills will interact more with machines and systems than with people, as they create digital products and experiences. Workers with design and interpersonal skills will help companies understand these products and experiences in the context of people’s daily lives.

And new kinds of jobs are continually being created, such as “foresight engineers” who anticipate people’s future needs and design entirely new ways for them to do business with each other and with machines. Technological expertise will be in demand even in previously non-tech jobs, like caregiving.

Over the next few years, we’ll continue to see an increased demand for workers with backgrounds in coding and analytics. But four to five years from now, I predict that people with design and interpersonal skills will be more sought-after in the job market.


Without a doubt, higher education must adapt to these changing trends. We must realize that the future of innovation is not only in problem solving; it’s also in problem finding. Workers who can identify opportunities for new products, better processes, and faster services will keep the economy moving.

Unfortunately, in education, we place extensive emphasis on problem solving. When we ask students to address a deep business or organizational problem, they almost always begin the conversation with solutions: “We can do this, and this, and this.” They don’t first consider why the problem even manifests.

To be fair, we must develop students’ problem-solving skills in the early stages of education. But as students mature, they must understand that every business solution ultimately benefits humans. Only when students are mindful of human instincts and their consequences will they become adept at detecting problems that organizations might not yet know exist.

At Purdue, I teach a course called Design for Instincts: Social Networks and Engagements, in which students learn a concept I call “instinctual appeal.” This refers to the act of understanding human instincts and biases in order to spot potential problems more easily. With this understanding, students learn how to nudge human behavior and design better products, processes, and policies.

In every class meeting, students complete a game, exercise, or fieldwork in which they evaluate alternatives and design solutions with instinctual appeal in mind. In one assignment, for example, students interview shoppers in a mall, before designing a clothing retail business to appeal to today’s customers.

Another exercise is inspired by the Red Balloon Challenge, conducted in 2009 by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For the challenge, DARPA distributed ten balloons across the United States.

The agency then invited teams to locate all ten balloons as quickly as possible by using the geographically distributed knowledge of their online social networks. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took only nine hours to locate all ten balloons, winning the $40,000 grand prize. In my version, I hide pieces of information—in this case, ten pictures of a duck—across campus. Students ask people in their social networks across the Purdue community to help them find the pictures. The team that finds all ten pictures first wins a more modest prize of $100. The exercise is a way for students to learn to tap, as DARPA describes it, “timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization … to solve broadscope, time-critical problems.”

Our students will need far more experiential learning opportunities like this if they are to succeed in a new-collar economy. So far, my students have applied what they’ve learned in many ways after graduation. One has redesigned the way badminton championship games are scored in India; others have designed new customer engagement systems for Fortune 500 companies.

If we adapt our educational models, we’ll give students a path to success and financial stability, we’ll give businesses a deep pool of talent, and we’ll position our institutions to thrive in a global landscape. We’ll help industries boom and evolve rather than stutter or die.

Then, all we’ll need to complete the picture are the flying cars.

Karthik Kannan is the Thomas Howatt Chaired Professor in Management at Purdue’s Krannert School of Management in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is the director for the Business Information and Analytics Center and previously was academic co-director for the MS in business analytics and information management.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].