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The University And The Future of Work

Are we prepared – or are colleges and universities preparing students – for the new world of work? 

May 24, 2016

The Solo Project, an organization that chronicles and supports the solo community, recently came out with a report, The New World of Work is Here and We are Not Ready. Lots of interesting information in the report and there is a lot for the higher education community to chew on, too.

So what is a soloist?

According to The Solo Project, soloist work independently “as freelancers, indie professionals, creative, free agents. We’re everywhere: in accounting and design, programming and the law, consulting and carpentry. We work on our own or in small teams. We work with corporations, but not for them.”

How many soloists are there and why is the number growing?

According to The Solo Project, “The numbers for the solo population are uncertain. The 53 million census includes part-timers, moonlighters, and independents-in-transition: no one knows how many full-time soloists there are. Economists agree only that this migration away from jobs – out of organizations into work we make for ourselves – is speeding up.” The report goes on to say that the number of soloists today is “nearly a third of the U.S. work force. This number could climb to nearly half the workforce within the next five years.”

Being a soloist is a dream for some and a necessity for others. The increase in independents include corporate downsizing, as well as the fact that many organizations can outsource creative work (everything from market research, to product design, to training and development); many people freelance for extra income, some pursue a post-retirement dream, others are looking to turn a hobby into a business, and others want to make their work fit their life instead of the other way around.  

What makes a successful soloist?

The report lists 13 characteristics emerging from their research into what it takes to be a (successful) soloist. Interestingly, many of them sound like the skills needed for any entrepreneurial venture:

  1.  “Grit   Resilience; the ability to endure setbacks and mistakes, to correct missteps quickly, to learn from failures
  2. Tolerance for Ambiguity   Ability to work hard for an uncertain outcome, and to make decisions in the midst of incomplete information
  3. Creative Problem Solving Skills   Ability to frame problems; to differentiate between critical, relevant info and ‘noise’; to identify ways to test potential solutions quickly
  4. Collaboration Skills   Capacity to work on projects with highly diverse team members
  5. Network Savviness   An intimate understanding of social networks, their ever increasing importance in getting things accomplished; ability to grow, use, and contribute to them
  6. Self Awareness   Fundamental understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses; ability to compensate for weaknesses
  7. Business-Finance Literacy   Understanding of value creation and the crucial issue of cash flow for independents and small teams; familiarity with personal finance issues
  8. Resourcefulness at Getting Help   How to recognize when you need help; the ability to ask for it; how to identify trustworthy sources of advice and expertise
  9. Sophisticated ability to Learn, Continually and Intentionally   How to identify your learning needs, find ways to meet and integrate them into professional routines
  10. Business Development Skills   How to identify opportunities; how to ‘market’ self; how to build sales pipeline; how to close a deal
  11. Adroitness at Personal ‘Branding’   How to create visibility in marketplace; how to build reputation capital
  12. Communication Skills   How to explain, pitch, present, write, persuade
  13. Design Awareness   Understanding the role design plays in communicating the value of business ideas”

What is higher education’s role in all of this?

Higher education certainly has its share of soloists, many of them known as adjuncts. According to a recent report by AAUP, “IPEDS data indicate less than one-third of faculty members are now either tenured or on the tenure track . . .The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force”    

Besides utilizing a lot of soloists to teach, colleges and universities are preparing students for a world where many of them will be working for themselves, rather than for a large organization. But how well are schools preparing these students? According to the Solo report,  

“ . . . university leaders seem oblivious to the profound changes taking place in the world of mainstream professional and creative work . . . We need to prepare people to create a job, not find one . . . We need to re-imagine every aspect of formal education, as well as less-formal skills-building efforts, to prepare people for this post-industrial age.”

What do you think? How well is your college or university performing in this area?


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