Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Education, skills help future-proof our workforce

Expanding opportunities …

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Jonathan Welch does contract work as a drywall installer. Realizing his job future is limited, he has been driving three hours each day from Priest Lake to attend classes at Eastern Washington University. He’ll graduate this spring and start a full-time position with the Kalispel Tribe using his biology degree. His life and career opportunities have expanded.

Ryan Wise was working in a grocery store when self-checkout machines began impacting his hours. Even though he cross-trained in other areas of retail, he saw that technology would continue to threaten his situation. After earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Eastern, he now works as a student adviser helping inspire current EWU students on their own paths to success.

Both of those Eastern students helped to “future-proof” their careers with a university degree.

Significant changes continue disrupting and shaping the workforce, threatening some jobs and creating opportunities for others. Some experts say up to half of all the jobs in our region will be eliminated or restructured in this decade.

In health-related professions, for example, new forms of telehealth are poised to expand access to health care for rural communities. Successfully serving patients in this new, online environment, however, will require even credentialed professionals to update their skills. Advanced manufacturing has displaced many low and unskilled workers. But it has created abundant, well-compensated job opportunities for the highly skilled engineers and technicians.

These and other innovations will bring increased demand for employees who have high-level abilities and the resilience to adapt to a changing workplace. As students and employees contemplate their futures, it’s essential that they consider the changing nature of the workplace and the skills they will need.

Deciphering the future is a complex task. The Spokane Workforce Council is working with Eastern Washington University, other higher education institutions, and K-12 schools to engage with businesses and understand changes on the horizon. The council provides leadership and guidance for workforce professionals from local agencies, helping workers find good jobs and businesses find the talent they need.

Eastern has long endorsed this approach as we focus on meeting the needs of students and our region. The university is developing curricula in urgently needed areas such as computer engineering and is on track to become a Center of Excellence in Cyber Security. EWU and the other colleges and universities in our region also offer career counseling to inform decision making in this volatile environment.

The changes impacting our regional workforce are profound. Students and employees of all ages are going to need advanced skills and knowledge-based competencies that will enable them to embrace lifelong learning.

Working together, educational institutions, businesses, and regional organizations can build on the strong foundation of key industries to create satisfying jobs and career pathways. 

Together, we can future-proof our region’s economic success.

Mary Cullinan is president of Eastern Washington University, and Mark Mattke is CEO of the Spokane Workforce Council.

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