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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

From the Cradle to the Grave

April 6, 2018 

It is certainly a welcome sign when Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s business roundtable composed of chairpersons, CEOs, and senior executives of the state’s largest job providers and universities, want to engage in order to help propel our schools and state forward.

Ed Reform—Be bold and proceed with caution

Business leaders: Education must improve to make Michigan a top 10 economy


It is good to see this engagement after years of neglect and disinvestment in schools, workforce preparation and infrastructure investment, and other public policy debates that will make us stronger as a state and nation. Clearly we can’t cut taxes to greatness as has been demonstrated here and by other states that have pursued this strategy to the bottom.

The Great Kansas Tax Cut Experiment Crashes And Burns


The ongoing decline in student achievement across Michigan – not just in poor, urban school districts- should sound alarm bells for all. It has been ringing for a decade or longer.

With technology, artificial intelligence, automation, and globalization coming at warp speed, jobs can and are moving effortlessly across the globe. It’s past time to get serious about educating children to higher and higher levels. Let’s be clear: our children are not simply going to be competing against kids in the next city or state — they will be collaborating with and competing against children across the globe. Far too many of our students are simply unprepared.

Gone are the days where a high school dropout or graduate could join the military or find a job alongside a parent or family member on the factory floor and expect a middle-class life. Rather than preparing students for a “career ladder,” today’s teachers are preparing students for lifelong learning – ongoing education, training, and expectations of multiple jobs in a lifetime, in many different fields of work.

The tsunami of automation and artificial intelligence technology offers the potential for even greater disruption of traditional ways of work in the next decade. The need for humans to work in a variety of physically challenging jobs – from transportation, retail food service and manufacturing – is evolving every day. Perhaps not as transparent is exactly how artificial intelligence and robotic machine learning will significantly disrupt, and likely make obsolete, a wide range of knowledge jobs that people have been lulled into believing are safe.

A study by researchers at Oxford University estimated that nearly half is at risk of “computerization,” while a report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that up to half of the activities people are currently paid to perform could be automated simply by adopting technologies that have already been proven to work.

Perhaps most disconcerting about these changes coming at warp speed is the fact that rather than embracing the future many are petrified by it. The Pew Research Center points out that “Americans consider this scenario to be plausible; express more worry than enthusiasm about the prospect of machines performing many human jobs, and anticipate more negative than positive outcomes from this development”

While polls suggest many Americans and Europeans fear AI will take their jobs, the Chinese are much more optimistic about the technology – sixty-five percent believe technology will create more job opportunities over the next five to 10 years.

We need to be educating and offering retraining opportunities for the existing workforce from the cradle to the grave.

In an Atlantic Magazine article:  Push Toward Lifelong Learning, the authors argue we have entered a new phase of the education (r)evolution saying a third wave in education and training has arrived. The level of preparation that worked in the first two waves—adding more time to education early in life—does not seem sufficient in the 21st-century economy. Instead the third wave is likely to be marked by continual training throughout a person’s lifetime—to keep current in a career, to learn how to complement rising levels of automation, and to gain skills for new work. Workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now when it often takes months or years to complete certificates and degrees.


It is up to all of us in Michigan to come together and create a new and better future for us all.

We must ask, “what if the impossible, isn’t?” The future will be collaboration on steroids. We are at the beginning of the beginning. Our world is rapidly changing how we shape it – is up to us.

The book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, helps point out how our society is in the midst of several significant, fundamental changes that will not only alter our society but kept it in a state of perpetual change. Much of what will happen in the next thirty years is inevitable, driven by technological and global trends that are already in motion. These forces will completely revolutionize the way we buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other.

By understanding and embracing these changes it will be easier for us to remain on top of the coming wave of changes and to arrange our day-to-day relationships with technology in ways that bring forth maximum benefits.


The Inevitable


Pretending these changes are not inevitable will doom us to a second class life.

Let me assure you, having traveled and worked in China over the last 30 years they are embracing these new ideas and technologies and are not slowing down while we get our act together.

We can lead change – or it will wash over us.

Technology, Automation, AI and Education will define the future

Real Change, Requires Real Change

Educators should embrace the business leaders revised desire to help improve education for our children and workforce. Business leaders need to truly listen to the voice of teachers. Both voices can add to the bottom line which should be about helping teachers teach and helping students learn.

The Tug of War over education policy. Remember, political rhetoric has never educated a single child.

My own career seems like a proverbial rock climb, encompassing among other fields- education and business while serving as management consultant with Plante and Moran a major accounting firm, assistant to the president of Wayne State University, Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools and President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, a council comprised of top CEOs in the region.

With that experience in mind, forthwith is my cautionary tale and recommendations to the business community in their work to formulate a “plan” for educational reform:

  • Schools have a different mission than business. “I’m from business and I am here to help you” doesn’t cut it. Educators, fed up with outsiders working ON them, prefer working WITH someone to help forge change leading to progress.
  • Forget ideology and political spin. Instead, do the hard research about what works. Invite key educators, teachers, principals, and superintendents to the table. Adopt the mantra, “Nothing about them, without them”. Smart business leaders don’t lay out change strategy without engaging frontline workers and we won’t get buy-in from educators if a plan is developed without their input. Engage teachers and educational leaders.
  • Develop a shared vision and common agenda to encompass the multitude of current silos and plans that exist. A unified, adequately funded direction for education is needed with a goal of helping teachers teach and children learn to prepare them for their future – not OUR past. Producing just another plan without a consensus on how to move forward is wasted effort.

Engage teachers as you pull the pieces together

Henry Ford put it best: “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”.

If we want to remain relevant as a state and nation, education and workforce preparation is the answer alongside massive new investments in education and workforce preparation from the cradle to the grave.

Change is inevitable, progress should not be optional. The future of our state and nation is sitting in the classroom today. It is our collective responsibility to get this right.

So, welcome Business Leaders for Michigan— there is enough work to go around.

Having a single plan we can ALL rally around is just the beginning. Let the hard work begin.

Tom Watkins is a regular contributor to the prestigious CHINAUSFocus.com an open-platform website where Chinese and American thought leaders can openly express their views on the myriad issues that face the two nations, thus promoting communication and understanding between the peoples of China and the United States. He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


April 5, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joe Nathan // Apr 6, 2018 at 6:07 am

    well done, Tom. Let’s learn from the most effective public schools, whether district or chartered. Let’s spread the best ideas, regardless of their source.

    Very wise recommendations, Tom. Hope business and other leaders listen.

  • 2 Chuck Fellows // Apr 7, 2018 at 7:07 am

    In order to develop and execute a plan a common purpose is required. Currently we do not have a common purpose. Contrary to popular opinion and practice, “educating” is not a valid purpose.
    Learning is. Everything we consider doing must be evaluated on the contribution the “do” will make to learning.
    In order to discover if that contribution to learning actually exists we must rely upon teachers and their students, and demonstrate that reliance by listening to what they have to say. Listening until those who are being listened to (teachers and students) and the listeners (the rest of us) agree about what has been communicated.
    The very first step in the commitment to listening is to end standardized testing and the reliance upon scores generated by this type of testing as barometers of learning growth.

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