New Mexico could have a $93 billion economic gain by 2050 if it closes the gaps in racial equity. Nationwide, the country could be looking at an $8 trillion gain. "And that's of great importance if we are to be competitive in a global economy, especially since half of the US workers will be people of color by 2050," says Paula Sammons, a program officer on the Family Economic Security team at the W K Kellogg Foundation.

Sammons delivered her remarks Oct. 15 at the start of a two-day national conference in Santa Fe focused on the future of education, technology, work and innovation.

The Close It Summit, held through Oct. 16 at the Santa Fe Convention Center, is hosting 500 educators, technologists, entrepreneurs and work specialists for dozens of talks and sessions on topics ranging from the future of work to social entrepreneurship to work-based learning solutions for students.

The conference was launched in 2013 by Santa Fe nonprofit Innovate + Educate, and has previously been held in Washington, DC, Dallas, Chicago and Austin.

Sammons, one of the speakers opening the conference, referenced a 2018 Kellogg Foundation report on the business case for racial equity. She also offered a working definition of equity to attendees, saying: "Equity is the result when you can't predict advantage and disadvantage by race or gender." The foundation, she noted, has a mission "to create equitable conditions and communities so children and families can be successful in work, school and life regardless of race or income."

One project working toward these goals includes the Family Centered Employment initiative, a joint effort by Innovate + Educate and the National Association of Workforce Boards. Twelve "workboards," including one in Albuquerque, are part of the project, which is intended to redesign the ways in which employers approach work to take into account both the needs of parents and children.

Changing both approaches and mindsets about work and education from a variety of angles drove the first morning's talks.

New Mexico Public Education Department's new Secretary Ryan Stewart, who has been on the job approximately six weeks, referenced a conversation he was part of in a former position in Philadelphia, in which that school district, he says, was going through almost a "massive existential crisis" due to budget cuts and low morale. Someone asked that district's superintendent how he could think about innovating at a time like that, and he said, "'How can we not? This is the perfect time when we need to start thinking about innovation, what the pipeline looks like for our kids and our workforce and our future.'" Stewart says he's excited for the changes to come for New Mexico's students, and "those conversations start here … this is the perfect time to come together across sectors and industries."

NM’s new PED secretary, Ryan Stewart.
NM’s new PED secretary, Ryan Stewart. | Julia Goldberg

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber, who welcomed the mostly out-of-town visitors, concurred, saying "The topic is essential not just to New Mexico. We're at a time when education innovation and creativity is at the core of what we need to be about." Webber also introduced Steve Cadigan, founder of the Silicon Valley-based Cadigan Talent Ventures and former vice president of talent at LinkedIn, whom Webber says he's known for more than a dozen years.

Cadigan, who spoke on "The Future of Work," said that in working with CEOs all over the world, he's found that none of them have five or 10-year plans because companies are operating in such uncertain times. The disruptive nature of business, in which as-yet-to-come startups may appear at any moment to dismantle an industry, make it hard to plan for the future. This uncertainty also makes it difficult for today's youth to know what skills they will need, and makes it difficult for employers to know who they should hire. All of these factors have created an environment in which employees have very little longevity.

"The big challenge for businesses today is the pace of change at work is exceeding the ability to re-skill," Cadigan said, citing data from the Institute for the Future indicating that 85% of the jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet and 65% of students today will be in jobs that do not exist today.

"We can't accurately predict what skills will needed," he noted. For employers, he said, this means the best way they can adjust is to offer potential employees the possibility of learning new skills and being more employable for the future. He encourages them to tell employees: "Stay because I will help you leave." Employability, he added, "is the new job security. Don't fight for a new job; fight to be employable. Don't fight to have that job; fight to be vital for tomorrow."

While perhaps one can't predict with certainty what skills will be needed, Amazon Web Services has focused, at a massive level, on cloud-based technology skills. Ken Eisner, director of AWS' Worldwide Education Programs, walked attendees through the program, which has scaled rapidly since it began in 2006. AWS Education provides extensive training and certification tools to students, educators and educational institutions.

While the program focuses on concrete skills, Eisner says the entire environment of education needs to focus on refining what students need to succeed in such an ambiguous environment.  "Are we preparing kids to deal with this massive level of ambiguity?" he asked. Today's students, he said, need to learn to "invent and simplify. Failure is good and iterating and inventing and taking risk is positive."