This week, Ken Steele continues his conversation with Larry Rosia, the president and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, about the fourth industrial revolution, workforce changes, rising interdisciplinarity, and the strengths of polytechnic education – particularly, their close connections to industry. “We like to say we have industry in our DNA,” Larry says.
The fourth industrial revolution, as the World Economic Forum calls it, is being driven by the rapid development and adoption of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in the workforce. “The topic fascinates me… but it’s one of the topics that keeps me awake at night as well,” Larry observes wryly. “The economy is changing, and the jobs of tomorrow are going to be significantly different than the jobs of today. The trouble is that tomorrow is coming sooner than we think.” Sectors are being disrupted, skill requirements are changing, and as the world of work evolves, higher education has to keep pace. Moreover, education itself is going to be disrupted by emerging technologies: “it’s hard to believe that we’re immune.” Larry challenges people at Saskatchewan Polytechnic to “disrupt or be disrupted.”
For 15 years now, the category of polytechnic institution has been gaining visibility in Canada, and many innovative college and university programs are hybrids of the two traditional approaches. Polytechnics are “the third way,” Larry observes, with applied learning, applied research, and strong partnerships with business and industry. But all three types of PSE play a role in the higher ed ecosystem.
Work-integrated learning is crucial, and 75% of SaskPolytech programs have a WIL component. Students take classroom learning to the jobsite, but they also learn skills on the jobsite, including the soft skills that employers are looking for. Polytechnics offer degrees that universities don’t offer, where industry is demanding advanced skills. Every program area has advisory committees of industry leaders, who review the curriculum for currency, skills and competencies. A growing number of college and university graduates are pursuing postgraduate education at SaskPolytech, to get the applied experience they need to get a job.
Saskatchewan Polytechnic recently reorganized its programs around industry sectors, to send the message that they are “open for business” and provide a clear point of contact for employers, and potential applied research partners. “If you want to be good in business, you have to make it easy for customers to do business with you.” The restructuring aligned SaskPolytech’s programs with industry, and as a result gave new momentum to interdisciplinary programs.
Some students are already pursuing polytechnic education, not to gain a traditional credential, but to gain the skills and competencies they need in their current job, for a new career, or to start a new business themselves. Larry uses the analogy of a music playlist to describe the sort of personalized education that will be coming soon: students are bundling courses together to prepare for careers that we’re not even thinking about. Companies like Google and Amazon have stated openly that they are no longer hiring based on credentials, but are seeking skills and competencies. Higher ed institutions need to become more nimble, and unbundle traditional programs so that students can assemble their own career pathway. Larry doesn’t believe that credentials will entirely cease to matter anytime soon, but unbundled learning will be critical for lifelong upskilling and reskilling.
Dr Larry Rosia (@LarryRosia on Twitter) has a background in telecommunications engineering, and holds a PhD in academic leadership from the University of Calgary. For more than 35 years, he has worked in higher education as an instructor, program chair, marketing manager, and senior administrator. Larry served as Dean of the School of Construction at SAIT from 1999-2012, and has been President and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic (formerly SIAST) since 2012. He authored a 2009 book, “The Successful College President: Strategies for Leading in a Complex Environment.” Larry also sits on the boards of many organizations including Polytechnics Canada, Skills Canada Saskatchewan, the Chair Academy International Leadership Board, the International Mineral Innovation Institute, and the Saskatchewan Post Secondary International Education Council.
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