Employment and Jobs

Canary in the Coalmine: Are we Teaching the Wrong Skills?

April 30, 2024  • Chris Trout

Ever have a song get into your head and play over and over? That happened to me recently. The tune? “Canary in a Coalmine,” by the Police.

The spark that led to the tune was the news and coverage on the sale of Crotonville, GE’s longstanding corporate university. Reading Jack Welch’s widow, Suzy Welch, lament the loss of an era where employees and leaders were on the same team resonated. This got me thinking about the evolution of teachings in both academic and corporate universities, particularly in regards to Gen Z’s perspectives on career advancement and the importance of humanity in the workplace.

Since the 1980s, MBA programs and corporate universities have heavily focused on equipping people with strong business fundamentals: strategy, technology, globalization, and supply chain. There has been an emphasis on efficiency, cost management, market share, optimization, and innovation. Corporate universities added topics like customer service, performance management, communication, and time management. More recently, topics such as big data, fintech, cybersecurity, and change leadership have found a place to address the increasingly complex work environment.

There is a lot of buzz, research, and conversation around Gen Z, the most diverse of any generation and the first to grow up completely in the digital era. Rightfully so, because Gen Z will represent 31% of the workforce by 2025, a critical number as the US labor force stagnates.

A Conference Board study caught my eye as it focused on Gen Z’s working full time. A few things jumped out to me. They’re concerned about safety and wellness, including a desire for employers to support both physical and psychological safety. They are also looking for career path opportunities, desiring growth, and feeling eager to share their knowledge and skills with others. Most importantly, they seek purpose in their work, wanting to understand how their tasks contribute to a larger whole and having leaders who embody values.

This leads to a crucial recognition: in a future increasingly shaped by artificial intelligence, uniquely human skills — such as critical thinking, compassion, creativity, and collaboration — will be paramount. This imperative is not just about individual growth, but also about ensuring American competitiveness in the face of workforce shortages and challenges. With a flat to shrinking workforce and more complexity, we need Gen Z.

Human skills development must take center stage in academic and corporate arenas. Too often they’ve been secondary, and these skills are crucial for individual and organizational success. The more we understand their importance, the more people will invest in them. People like Frances Frei, Anne Morris, Brené Brown, Amy Edmondson, Rasmus Hougaard, and Jacqueline Carter champion these skills, addressing topics such as vulnerability, love, empowerment, psychological safety, and compassion. Additionally, voices like Joe Fuller and Manjari Raman emphasize the importance, particularly for frontline employees. Neglecting such skills not only leads to disengagement and decreased competitiveness, but also contributes to mental health issues. It’s time to prioritize the cultivation of these essential human capacities.

Back to “Canary in a Coalmine,” Gen Z is telling us something — though it is not to flee. They’re telling us to get in. Get into the topics that make us human. They’re telling us it’s okay to prioritize feelings and have open conversations. By listening to them and fostering intergenerational conversations, we can harness the collective wisdom of diverse perspectives. This, in itself, is valuable for all universities to prioritize.

P.S. If you never heard the tune, check it out. It’ll give you a fun bounce to your day!

About the Author

Chris Trout is a consultant to UpSkill America and executive in residence with the Education and Career Mobility Fellowship. He is principal at Donlon Consulting.


About UpSkill America

UpSkill America, an initiative of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program, supports employers and workforce organizations to expand and improve high-quality educational and career advancement opportunities for America’s front-line workers. We seek to create a movement of employers, civic organizations, workforce intermediaries, and policymakers working collaboratively to implement education, training, and development strategies that result in better jobs and opportunities for front-line workers, more competitive businesses, and stronger communities. Follow us on LinkedIn and learn more at upskillamerica.org.