President Obama meets Quest Alliance

How often do you get the chance to ask the former President of the United States for advice on your work? It’s an opportunity that Quest Alliance Executive Director Aakash Sethi was given earlier this month, when he was invited by the Obama Foundation to the December 1 Town Hall session in New Delhi.

Joining almost 300 young Indian leaders for discussions around active citizenship, Aakash spoke directly to the president about youth employability in the Indian context. After introducing President Obama to Quest’s work in school dropout prevention and job-readiness, Aakash probed the president on the best way forward in creating young people with 21st Century skills. We were struck by how far the president’s answer, with its focus on the importance of building scalable models, resonated with Quest’s values and larger vision.

Listen to the question and answer at 1 hour 59 minutes in the video above, and read the transcript below.

Aakash Sethi:

Automation is coming, and that’s expected to take lots of jobs away, especially at the lowest rung. There are going to be new kinds of jobs that are created, and the skills that our school system is giving young people, don’t really produce the kind of young people that have those skills.

What does it take to change the school system to think differently? Where pilots are working, like you mentioned, the scaling up of those pilots really needs a stronger political partnership. How do we enable that kind of movement and change?

President Obama:

It’s a great question. I think your analysis is right. It’s interesting, I was talking to both the Prime Minister, and then I had a short conversation with the opposition leader, and both of them talked about jobs, and their concern about producing enough jobs for a very young Indian population.

In the United States, there is a concern, even though the unemployment rate right now is low—thanks to some of the policies I put into place when I was President—but, there is still concern about the quality of jobs, temporary jobs, etcetera.

This is a global challenge that we are going to be facing. It’s a combination of globalization, automation … It is going to accelerate as consequence of AI and digital processes that allow any job that lends itself to repetition … to be automated fairly quickly, and very efficiently.

So you’re right, the nature of work is going to change.

Now, keep in mind that India is such a vast country, there’s still so many Indians, that the capacity for India to continue to generate manufacturing jobs, blue collar work etcetera will still be there. Because there is just so much to do; this is such a big market, potentially.

But, what is also true is that … in every country, no matter how advanced or underdeveloped, the percentage of jobs that are going to require what’s between your ears as opposed to what you’re doing with your hands, is going to grow.

You’re right that the school systems that we generally have—in the United States, in India—really date back to the transition between the agricultural age and the industrial age. They don’t fit the demands of an economy built on top of this rapid technological change. I think that governments are going to be more and more responsive, and will recognize this fact.

The challenge is going to be building models that work, and then facilitating the transition from the old system to the new, because there will be resistance to those changes.

I’m a big supporter—in the United States—of teachers. I think that teachers tend to be undervalued and underpaid. It is the most important job that we have out there. I’m also a big supporter of unions, because I believe that workers being able to join together to give themselves more leverage with their employers is important. There are times where I’ve said to teachers’ unions, though: you’ve got to be in front of change as opposed to resisting change. Just because this is how things have been done, and you feel that it’s a comfortable way to protect your numbers … you should be leading the charge in how do we re-design classrooms. But, sometimes there has been resistance because the feeling is: you know what? This is going to put more responsibilities on us, or it lessens our security, or maybe it renders our own skills obsolete … I just use that as one example of resistance that may arise out of the traditional systems.

It goes back to the point I was making earlier. Which is I think, finding ways to prove concept in a redesigned school, and then starting to build allies and work outwards. That’s going to be the process by which this changes. But it will probably be a generation for these changes to take place. And it’s going to be sporadic, and spotty, and you need to anticipate that, particularly in a country as large as India.

Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

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