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VOL. 132 | NO. 138 | Thursday, July 13, 2017

How to Avoid Digging With Spoons

By Frederick W. Smith

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Legend has it that well-known 20th-century economist Milton Friedman once visited a canal-building site in China where thousands of people were digging with shovels to complete the project. Friedman asked the foreman why they didn’t bring in heavy equipment to get the job done better and faster. The foreman told him that would put a lot of people out of work. “In that case, why not have them dig with spoons?” Friedman said.


The Cycle of Innovation

Despite the many benefits of new technologies, people worry that new inventions and innovation in general will take away more jobs than they create. The fact is that technology is making many existing jobs more efficient and adding jobs to the economy, even as other ones go away. That’s the cycle of innovation, and it’s been going on for centuries.

One of our biggest challenges is that many people today want jobs but only know how to dig with spoons. They’re desperate for training in a variety of fields. And such training can’t come too soon. According to the World Economic Forum, over a third of the core skill sets in most jobs will be replaced with new ones by 2020.

Unfortunately, in the United States at least, our K-12 educational system is not preparing young people for some 5.6 million jobs going unfilled today … some of which may not warrant a college degree but require specific training nonetheless.

As a result, companies, universities, community colleges and government organizations are taking it upon themselves to create training for the jobs they need to fill. Some have developed quite innovative approaches:

• IBM’s Skills Gateway program offers the general public specific learning tracks for technology jobs in areas such as security, the cloud and mobile app development. This approach is just one example of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement.

• By providing free training and support to socially disadvantaged, aspiring agricultural entrepreneurs, FARMroots (a branch of New York City’s sustainability network) is diversifying the farming industry. More than 300 aspiring and experienced farmers have moved through the program and now see farming as a revitalized economic opportunity.

• The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a global program that helps regions around the world accelerate economic growth and promote social progress through innovation-driven entrepreneurship. The partner regions join MIT faculty and associated teams to develop a customized regional strategy to build business success.

Innovating for Good

Besides delivering the innovative technology we’ve become known for, FedEx, like these organizations, is intent on innovating for good. We believe we’re responsible for creating not only business value for our stakeholders but societal value for our world. That’s why we concentrate on innovations that will do the most good and give the most back. To cultivate a more innovative workforce, we’ve developed training opportunities of our own.

Our Employment Pathways program, for example, creates avenues to meaningful employment for underserved populations. For some young people, that path could be training for in-demand jobs, especially in technology and logistics. We support a program at a nearby community college that provides aircraft mechanic training because we and other airlines have a need for those technicians.

Others may have the training but don’t know how to find the opportunities. That’s why we offer programs that connect both veterans and young people to employers seeking talent.

I’m also proud to say that the state of Tennessee, the FedEx home base, was the first to provide tuition-free community college education to high school graduates, so that people who want good non-degreed jobs can get the training they need. Other states are beginning to follow suit.

A Connected Future

As human beings we are never more productive than when we connect.

Whether we’re linking to people, products or ideas, a spark ignites that lights the way to greater creativity. Simply put, connection spurs innovation, and innovation delivers big dividends to humankind.

Longtime business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter espouses an innovation concept she calls “kaleidoscope thinking.” She described it as shaking up your thinking to find different patterns from the same bits of reality – much as you do when you twist a kaleidoscope to see new patterns.

To encourage kaleidoscope thinking in all realms, FedEx now formally recognizes it through our 2017 FedEx Young Innovators List. On it are not only people but also cities, countries, and big concepts such as space travel and trade. It even includes a car. We hope such recognition inspires everyone to look near and far for new ideas or combinations of existing ones to create a more connected future – one in which our work is more fulfilling, our lives more satisfying, and the possibilities are endless.

Frederick W. Smith is chairman and CEO of FedEx Corp.

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