How Can We Educate Workers At The Speed Of Change? Build Complex, Adaptive Coalitions.

ECMC Group
4 min readMay 10, 2022

Nearly 20 years ago, award-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman boldly stated, “the world is flat.”

Now, almost two decades after his groundbreaking look at the intersection of globalization and technology, amid a sea change in the ways technology is reshaping the global economy, Mr. Friedman has revised his declaration: the world is not just flat, it is fast.

Reams of information are accessible at the click of a button. Money moves virtually across the globe in an instant. Skills that were impossible to imagine needing for a job even five years ago become essential — and then get automated and become obsolete just as quickly, with new ones taking their place.

In early April, I had the pleasure of speaking onstage with Mr. Friedman at the ASU+GSV Summit. It was an enlightening discussion exploring how the world has changed in the last two decades and how education has — and, more importantly, hasn’t — kept up.

In a world that is moving fast and accelerating all at the same time, our workforce training infrastructure hasn’t kept pace, leading to a worsening skills mismatch. We must make big, bold changes to start educating students at the speed of change. The good news is, it’s not too late to reverse this trend. But it requires innovative new solutions, starting with what Mr. Friedman calls “complex, adaptive coalitions.”

Complex, adaptive coalitions are the key to the future of education.

What are complex adaptive coalitions? Informal organizations of business leaders, educators, policymakers, philanthropists and nonprofits, and other social innovators, who can nimbly work together to break down silos and establish new institutions that are more collaborative and effective than those we have today.

The skills mismatch — the gap between the skills required for open jobs and the skills workers have — is a quintessential example of a problem that cannot be solved without inputs from all the members of the coalition. Businesses must communicate what skills they will need for their workforce, not just today but years in the future. Educators are the ones in the classroom helping students learn the skills they will apply in their future jobs. Policymakers must provide funding that supports high-quality, equitable education.

Without these coalitions, our efforts to address the skills mismatch are doomed to fail.

The siloed nature of our current workforce development pipeline is letting down both employers, who are desperate for skilled workers amid a historic labor shortage, and students, who are regularly telling us they desire shorter, more affordable postsecondary education options, without the stigma that prevents many students from considering options beyond a four-year degree.

According to the latest Question The Quo Education Pulse survey from ECMC Group, the number of teens planning to attend a four-year college continues to decrease, with less than half now considering it, even though 86 percent feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree. What’s more, 53 percent believe they can achieve professional success with education attained in three years or less.

And underscoring the importance of the kinds of coordination that can only happen in complex, adaptive coalitions, high school students are keenly focused on the connections between their education and their future career: 69 percent say it is important to have on-the-job experiences like apprenticeships and internships during their postsecondary education.

The nonprofit world is an essential connector in these coalitions.

In many cases, nonprofits can and will be the glue that holds these coalitions together. At my organization, ECMC Group, I’ve had a front-row seat to see how bringing many functions — career pathway and financial education services, grant-giving, and career training, to name just three — together under one roof can help organizations enhance their work through deeper insights into the populations they serve.

Nonprofits are in a unique position of being both inputs and outputs in this conversation. Many of them help shape the workforce training pipeline, whether through direct postsecondary education, grant funding, student support services, or the many other places where nonprofits are essential to our education system. And countless more are employers themselves and have a deep interest in ensuring the skills they need from their workforce are being taught in our postsecondary schools.

My call to philanthropists and nonprofit leaders is simple: find or develop the complex, adaptive coalitions in your community and get in on the ground floor. Help shape the workforce of the future. Lend your perspective, expertise and willingness to nurture promising seeds to help break down barriers and support a more equitable worker training pipeline that can tackle the skills mismatch.

This year’s ASU+GSV Summit was dedicated to imagining a new era in which all people have equal access to the future. But that new era won’t simply fall from the sky. The responsibility lies with all of us to build the coalitions necessary to support lifelong learning and help educate students at the speed of change.

As Mr. Friedman says, “class is always in session.”

Jeremy Wheaton is president and CEO of ECMC Group.



ECMC Group

ECMC Group is a nonprofit corporation with a mission to help students succeed.