When we founded Jiffy Lube International in 1979, my business partners and I saw the company as a new technology. We weren't exactly selling smart phones, but we implemented a new method of changing car oil that upended the traditional way of doing things.
Today's technology is transforming virtually every job in every industry. More important, the environment and requirement for learning heralds a future of work that is fundamentally different from the present.
A report by the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting released in January provides a glimpse of what the workplace of the future will look like. It concludes that nearly 1 million Americans will see their occupations vanish entirely by 2026 and will have to attain new skills to meet the demands of the marketplace and find equally paid work.
There must be unprecedented adaptability within the workforce, but the need goes beyond that. Individuals, teams and organizations have to be constantly changing – they must be learning organizations to be competitive commercial enterprises. This puts a heavy burden on our nation's colleges and universities, which must lead the way in preparing students for professions of the future – and professionals to be students of the future.
We're long past the days when students would go to college for four years, perhaps attend graduate school and work in a single career for the rest of their lives. Today's students must be prepared to change jobs every few years, create their own jobs and curate their own careers.
Is our higher education system ready for the challenge? The answer is no – at least not yet. For too long, college degrees have rewarded students' proficiency in taking exams, not their readiness for a career. As a result, students are trained to recite definitions, processes and formulas, but their lack of experience in real-world application limits their effectiveness and ability to innovate within their respective fields.
This has to change. Higher education must focus squarely on developing the skills students need to succeed in a rapidly evolving job market. We must reject the false dichotomy of theory and practice. Deep thought and decisive action must be linked – this is the imperative for today's university graduate.
Findings from a recent McKinsey Global Institute report indicate that for all the jobs that will be lost to automation in the next 13 years, hundreds of millions of new jobs will be created in response to emerging economies, aging populations and technology development. We need to prepare students for these trends and to anticipate others that will define work in the future.
Let's leave the memorizing to the robots and instead develop a networked educational system that is required of a networked society. I don't mean providing Wi-Fi on campus – though that's a necessity, of course. I'm referring to transdisciplinary learning, in which students pursuing different career paths form teams, engage with companies, help identify real-world problems and discover innovative solutions that create value for society.
Education must become flexible through partnerships with communities, governments, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. A four- or five-year relationship between students and educators needs to become a 40- to 50-year partnership for lifelong learning.
Transdisciplinary learning promotes collaboration and creativity, which are becoming more valued in many professions and will grow in importance in the workplace of the future. As the McKinsey study notes, workers of the future will focus less on things that robots can do, such as data collection and processing, and more on things robots can't do, namely captaining teams, making strategic decisions, and communicating within and outside their organizations.
Increasing automation is a clarion call for a revolution in higher education. If we do our job as educators, we will prepare students to work in symphony with technology, rather than in competition with it. If we only meet the current needs of society, we will leave our students behind.
Commentary by Dr. Stephen Spinelli, Jr., the co-founder of Jiffy Lube, a brand of automotive oil change specialty shops. He is currently chancellor of Thomas Jefferson University. He was president of Philadelphia University from 2007 until this year, when Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University merged. Follow him on Twitter @ SpinelliS.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.