The panelists for "Teaching Skills That Matter" at the Tom Tom Founders Festival were (from left): Jared Bigham, Evelyn Aissa, Michael Hostad, Kendall Morris. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

How should schools and colleges prepare students for their careers when technology— and jobs associated with it— can become obsolete in the span of a few years?

At the Tom Tom Founders Festival on Thursday, leaders of education nonprofits in three different states discussed ways to teach “skills that matter” regardless of how the economy changes.

“I think this issue will continue to be a challenge until we realize that we will never be able to stay ahead of the technology curve,” said Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0. “Sometimes people equate innovation with technology; sometimes we lean on that too much.”

Bigham, a former principal of public schools, now leads a community-wide initiative aimed at improving public education and job training in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee.

“For the first time, I feel that we have postsecondary, K-12, and early childhood education and businesses pulled into a discussion around workforce development and skills,” Bigham said.

Evelyn Aissa, executive director of Reaching Higher New Hampshire, said today’s high school graduates are likely to hold jobs at many different workplaces over the course of their careers.

“Success in the workforce is less about having discrete bodies of knowledge, and more about the ability to adapt to the new demands of the place where you’re working,” Aissa said.

Aissa’s organization provides education policy content and analysis for New Hampshire residents and advocates for competency education in the state’s public schools.

In 2013, New Hampshire was granted a flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed the state to reduce standardized testing in favor of assessments that are integrated into students’ day-to-day work.  

The Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County will pilot similar “embedded assessments” for its maker curriculum over the next two years through a partnership with the MIT Teaching Systems lab. 

“Our students are thriving, and our educators love it because they get to design their own assessments,” Aissa said. “Our students are becoming the creative, risk-taking thinkers we want them to be.”

Bigham said he hoped Tennessee and other states would also see a reduction in standardized testing.

“We have to end the game of mistrust in our schools,” he said. “We have so many assessments to make sure teachers are teaching the way they are supposed to, and that schools are doing the job they are supposed to do. … My dad used to tell me: ‘You can’t fatten a hog by weighing it every day.’”

Michael Hostad, executive director of Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE), said it was crucial for young people to learn how to work effectively in teams. He said educational institutions should teach students how to resolve interpersonal conflicts, and help them to understand the value of diversity. 

“[Project] teams in college often are formed around your major or your degree program,” said Hostad. “You are often on teams of people who are just like you. … That doesn’t always give you the reality of what teamwork is like in the business environment.”

MiKE is an initiative of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a private sector civic organization in Wisconsin. Much of MiKE’s work is carried out through The Commons, an entrepreneurial accelerator that Hostad co-founded.

“We connect students to business, nonprofit and startup communities to keep them in the Milwaukee area,” Hostad said. 

Hostad said he chose to study information technology at a technical college after high school instead of applying to four-year colleges — a decision that puzzled and alarmed his guidance counselors at the time. 

“We need to change the way we evaluate and assess people through all aspects of our lives,” Hostad said. “The college admissions and hiring processes are broken. … Human resources professionals look for degrees and years of experience, but no one is ever looking at skills and aptitude that you can bring to the job.”

Bigham said Americans must combat the stigma associated with pursuing technical education instead of a college degree.

“In Chattanooga, an industry certificate has more earning power than a bachelor’s degree right now,” said Bigham. “Skilled labor is what the market is demanding; that’s why a plumber can charge $100 per hour.”

Aissa predicted that future generations of students will refuse to make the same sacrifices for higher education that their parents had.

“Having a higher degree is valuable if it prepares you for a field that is useful and in demand, where you can add value. But it doesn’t have to be a degree from Harvard that leaves you in debt for 15 years,” Aissa said.

Bigham acknowledged that he and other parents still feel pressure to help their children prepare for standardized tests and “play the game” to gain admission to selective colleges.

“The parent in me wants to say, ‘let’s just make [our children] great learners,’” Bigham said. “But I think at the end of the day, until the system changes around the way we assess kids and how we use those assessment results, it’s going to be a little bit of both. You can’t get away from it.”

Thursday’s panel discussion was moderated by Kendall Morris, chief strategy officer at Authentic, a digital marketing agency in Richmond. Morris volunteers as a mentor for Junior Founders Club, a program that encourages teens to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

“You can only succeed through failures,” Morris said. “Entrepreneurship creates areas where you are forced to learn what you are good at, and what you are not good at.”


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.