Elaina Farnsworth, The NEXT Education

Driven – Mobility Moment: Elaina Farnsworth, NEXT Education

For the past century the engineer has been at the center of automotive development, but mobility requires a smart infrastructure too. So how does this need for skilled talent impact our future workforce?

But let’s think about a broader scenario because the workers aren’t going to only have to build the vehicles, the workers are going to have to support the ecosystem that is beyond just that one transportation device.

That was Elaina Farnsworth. She is CEO of The NEXT Education, a leader in real-world learning solutions for mobility, autonomy, and intelligent transportation. She’s also our guest on Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast. Stick with us because we’re talking about future workforce needs, upskilling and reskilling and something called the “Scully Effect.”

I’m your host, Claire Charlton.

Elaina, good morning and welcome to Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast. I’m so excited to talk with you.

Oh, me too, Claire. Thank you for having me.

Yes. So let’s talk a little bit about your company, The NEXT Education.

Yes. The NEXT Education, we’re a training firm and we specialize in the area of autonomy and intelligent transportation. The reason we do that is because both autonomy and ITS is changing the world. And it is our mission to get people ready for that change and to train them for the jobs that are coming.

So Elaina, you are the CEO of the company that you just described, The NEXT Education, and you’re also a mobility thought leader. So let’s set the stage a little bit with you in that second role. Let’s talk about the mobility ecosystem in general. We’re adopting electric vehicles, connected vehicles, a connected infrastructure, and eventually autonomous vehicles. So it’s not just happening here, but Michigan does have a fantastic opportunity to lead the country in this advanced technology. Talk about how you see this new mobility infrastructure impacting our lives in the next decade or so.

I love this question, Claire. And I tell you why, because when I speak nationally, many times I get the question, “Oh, when is this going to be here?” The fact is, it’s here today. So we have instances in Michigan around where we have actual deployment of all of these technologies that you’re talking about, autonomy, connected mobility, and intelligent transportation. And I want to start by just kind of giving an overview here in Michigan about where you can see this in real life, not on TV, but in downtown Detroit we have a wonderful display of autonomy with May Mobility and some of the autonomous shuttles that they have going on right now in downtown Detroit. We also have instances with our universities, the University of Michigan and their launch of their autonomous shuttle for students that is on the University of Michigan campus.

Obviously we have instances with our high concentration of automotive that you may not be able to just walk on and see, but it’s happening in the development right here. And then last but not least what I’m going to mention is, you know, the American Center for Mobility. So I mentioned all of these instances because Michigan has historically been a leader in showcasing these newer technologies. And it’s not tomorrow, it’s today.

So if we imagine a world of let’s just take out the ease of transportation, which clearly will be a benefit for those who don’t own cars. But let’s think about in an urban environment where there may be individuals that need access to things like healthcare because they don’t currently have the ability to get from point A to point B, but they need to get medicines and they need to be able to access health care providers to be able to stay fit and to stay healthy.

These are ways that autonomy will change lives in not only just convenience factors, but clearly can extend the life of people because we’re able to provide services to them that they’ve never been able to access before.

So it’s not just moving people necessarily, but moving goods and services as you mentioned.

That correct. We have instances that are going on right now in the United States in Alpha and Beta tests where we have pizzas being delivered by autonomous vehicles, or we have for-profit entities that are investing in having a driverless car that will drive up and allow you to pay for dinner. Now this is goods and services.

We also have autonomy. A lot of people think about the driverless car, but autonomy is really any vehicle, whether it’s a ground vehicle, an aerial vehicle, a maritime vehicle that’s moving from one place to another that is using primarily technology as its navigation systems. So when we start talking about goods and services being delivered, you know, how great would it be if we had a vehicle that would pull up to your house and you’ve just ordered many of the items from various places and then a drone can bring it to your house? So those are some of the things that are still being tested. But those are a very real future view of how autonomy is really going to change the world we live in today.

And so one of the changes that we need to talk about is workforce. So our workforce will change and not just in automotive, but across many sectors as you mentioned. So what opportunities do you think these changes will create for a future workforce?

So I like to shift the conversation typically from that traditional engineering discussion. And the reason being is it’s clear we’re going to need engineers because as the autonomy changes the world, we’re going to have to have those engineers that are able to build the systems. But let’s think out a broader scenario because the workers aren’t going to only have to build the vehicles. The workers are going to have to support the ecosystem that is beyond just that one transportation device. So when we think about that, let’s think about those installers. So we have a program right now that we support in intelligent transportation where we take those skilled workers. So those people who have been, you know, in jobs for 25 years in transportation, but they may have been only susceptible to an analog kind of thinking. So not a digital way of thinking.

Well, when we start talking about smart cities and we start talking about intelligent transportation where you have sensors that are talking from the traffic lights to your vehicle. So it’s a safer way to get from place to place. You have to have somebody to install that. You have to have somebody that’s going to get up on that pole and know exactly how to install that 365 camera because the line of sight becomes very important. The data transmission becomes very important, but it’s not just the engineering behind the IT part. It’s if that infrastructure isn’t installed or grounded properly, then that data doesn’t transmit in the proper format. And so those are the jobs that are going to be more prevalent, not the four-year college degree where we have that engineering background, but those who can install and troubleshoot and maintain and have that core of skill set that doesn’t necessarily require that engineering degree.

So this is wonderful because it opens up opportunities for people who don’t necessarily want to get a four-year degree, but who are looking to jumpstart their career or in fact even pivot their career. Maybe they will be doing some upskilling. So that’s something that your organization can help with. Talk about the concept of upskilling.

Yes. So we use two terms, which is reskilling and upskilling workers of today. Because we want them to be ready for the jobs of tomorrow. The interesting thing, I must preface it with this. The interesting thing about the jobs tomorrow, I love saying this is we have what’s moving today but there are going to be jobs we don’t even know about yet. In the instance of connective vehicle, just a few short years ago we did a study here in Oakland County and we found that there was a new job category that came out of the study because no one had identified that specific skill set yet, so that’s happening every day in autonomy, connected vehicle and intelligent transportation. So with that, the concept of upskilling is that we take those fundamental skills that a person would need. For instance, I’m going to go back to the analogy that I used earlier in intelligent transportation.

We may have had someone that has been an installer and in transportation for years that has gone out to do site surveys and they’re very much driven into being able to do that transportation oriented task. However, they don’t need to go back to get a degree in IT or in intelligent transportation. What they do need is to be able to take that skill that they have perfected over the last 25 years and layer on top of that additional skills that will make them better at the job of tomorrow, which is something, as I mentioned earlier, like installing it properly or grounding it properly so that the data can get through the pipes. That is one instance of reskilling.

A second one I like to use in an engineering capacity because we don’t want to forget them. Even though I’m talking about additional jobs. In an engineering capacity, we have cybersecurity that is entering the stage because it’s very important with all of the data that’s transmitted in this economy that it’s secure. So, many times in the cybersecurity area, we’re seeing that HR directors will hire to a computer science degree. But what we’re finding is that the managers that are driving the engineering side would almost prefer that we have someone with an automotive background and a mechanical engineering that would then upscale themselves with cybersecurity principles and be able to then recommend initiatives in the software field because they didn’t go back and get an IT degree. But that would be a case of upskilling an engineer to be a cybersecurity specialist with an automotive or a mechanical engineering background.

So that’s so interesting. And it makes a case for the concept of lifelong learning and expanding your skills to meet the needs of the market.

Yes, that’s correct. And I love that lifelong learning because many years ago it was okay to get just a four year degree and to, you know, do some things in professional development. But it wasn’t as critical as lifelong learning because today we have access to information all the time, anywhere at any time. And so in order for us to remain relevant in this future economy, we have to change our thinking. And so one of the reasons we named our company The NEXT Education is we know that that next job, that next leader, that next skill that you need is going to continuously be there as opposed to just staying stagnant. Because if you stay stagnant, you’re not going to be able to be relevant in the economy of data anytime, anywhere.

So what is the model for The NEXT Education? How do people attain these skills through your organization?

So we have two, we have three ways that you can attain the skills. We, one, have in person classroom learning. Where we send instructors. We’re a little different than a university because we work with universities and many times we work with community colleges and that we employ subject matter experts that are usually working in the industry. So they may be working full time somewhere, but they’re our instructors because they do it every day. So we have those instructor led trainings where we will send a subject matter expert and to say, Hey, you know what? I did a deployment last week and let me tell you what happened. It’s not like you read it in the books.

We also have online learning where we have a proprietary trademark on module called micro tracks and they’re small consumable pieces of information you can take online because many times, I don’t know about you Claire, but I’m in airports a lot and many times I can get on my tablet and I can go through a series of short learning and then do something to show that I know that skill so I can get a badge for instance. And then I may shut my laptop and I may not be able to see it again for another week because I’m traveling again. That is the concept of micro tracks where we are able to provide users with information where they can show that they’re learning and they’re doing things in order to be able to earn credentials, but they don’t have to be in a classroom for five days because they just aren’t able to do that. So those are the types of things. And you can learn all about our company at thenextad.com

Right. So, you mentioned your website and on your website is a really great blog and there are a lot of interesting topics that you and your colleagues write about. But one of the things that you said was that our whole ecosystem really needs to refresh its mindset. I see this in a lot of ways in that we really have to kind of throw away what we already know or maybe build upon what we already know about the way that we are, the way that we move goods and services and people today. Can you talk a little bit about how that refreshing your mindset applies to the work that you do everyday?

Yes. It’s a very interesting and fun environment because if you like stimulation of your mind, it’s always there. I’m going to reference the Center for Automotive Research, which is, you know, is out of Ann Arbor. They have an event coming up called Bridging Detroit and Silicon Valley. And reason I’m mentioning that is because I love that term bridging. The skill sets and the ecosystem that we have today have been around for some time. Now, it’s going to change and evolve just like anything does in an ecosystem. It evolves to be better than it was by itself. But that bridge is what is extremely important to recognize that there are skill sets that exist today that are incredibly important to stay consistent, such as the engineering principles, the way the data is captured and the way that data moves, but bridging the conversations with the educational institutions with the ability to upscale.

So let’s go in and see what you have today and let’s bridge to be able to do it tomorrow. I sometimes say that it’s the wild west and here’s why. There’s so many jobs available right now. Literally, I did a search yesterday just in the area on Indeed, and I think there was like 19,000 jobs in the midwest for intelligent transportation or something that was related to that. If you want to get in as an individual to this career or you want to change careers all together, if you really look at the ecosystem itself, which is data, which is cybersecurity, which is communication protocols, it’s autonomy, it’s connected mobility, it’s intelligent transportation. All these words aren’t just buzzwords. They have components that are significant in order to make them work. So if we look at the pieces of the ecosystem and as an individual or a company, we focus on reskilling and upskilling to that ecosystem, you can pretty much call your shots and get a job in the future.

Now, I do want to be clear, just because you get a certification, it doesn’t mean you’re going to start at management level. You have to have realistic expectations that if you’ve been in one role and you certify and credential yourself, you may have to start at an entry level role to work, for instance, at a department of transportation. But your path to success is much quicker than if you don’t do the research, get the certifications, and then embrace the ecosystem that you’re going to be engaging with.

Excellent. So just to pivot to another really important aspect to the success of mobility is diversity. And specifically with more women in the mobility workforce. Can you talk about your Top 100 Women in Cyber and Mobility program?

I love that you’re ending with one of my favorite topics. We see a need for females to be able to engage in this industry. And what’s really funny is I have a wonderful colleague, I won’t mention her name, but we were talking when we decided to launch this initiative, and I said, we’re going to honor 100 females that have top achievements in mobility and cybersecurity. And we want it to be from a diverse, we want them to be young and old. We want them to have everything that there is to embrace what a female is. And she looks at me and she goes, “Is there 100 of us in it?”

That’s my question. Is there?

Exactly. And what is incredible is, yes, there are, but as we have seen over and over again many times, you know, we don’t highlight herself as women and we really don’t get out and say, hey, look at the achievements that we’ve accomplished. Many times, you know, very powerful, strong women as well as men, but we just do what we do. And so we noticed a need to be able to highlight that for two reasons. One is because many people in general don’t understand the difference between autonomy and connected mobility and intelligent transportations. And then vehicle cybersecurity. Those are very different but similar things. So our hope was is that when we highlight these top 100 women that are doing these amazing accomplishments in these areas, we can show the relative contribution between the communication.

So how does communication protocol play a role in this? We can show the relevance of cybersecurity when it comes to autonomy and connected mobility. We can show different industry specific parts of the ecosystem by highlighting these women and the jobs that they do. And in addition, what we can show is what these women have been able to achieve great successes by staying focused. Another, we hope, ancillary benefit to this top 100 women is each of these women that we have awarded the award to and have honored this year have agreed to have a mentor session with young women. So, not only are we honoring top 100 women, but we’re also engaging them with 100 young women, which may be elementary age, may be middle school age. And we’re saying to them, you know, “Look,” I laughed, Claire, do you remember, is it the X Files where Agent Scully, do you remember her?

Yes!

Well, I mentioned her because I was reading a few months back and there is actually a phenomena called the Scully Phenomenon because they did a research back in the, I want to say late 90s, early 2000s, forgive me if I misquote that, but where the Scully Effect was, many of the very influential women of the time had watched Agent Scully on TV and said, I never knew that a woman could be part of such an exciting and engaging field. So, not that we mimicked that, but our thought was if we highlight the success of women that we can highlight accomplishments in the industry itself and then we can also show young women that are looking for a career and maybe have no idea what this is, that there would be a role model for them to model their potential for going into a career field in intelligent transportations or cyber.

Excellent. I love that. It is so important to know that you can see people like you who look like you, who look like you in your field of choice and that you can see that it’s possible. If they achieved it, hey, so can you.

Exactly.

I love that. What else do you want people to know about the future of mobility or the right now of mobility, especially Michigan’s role in this particular ecosystem?

If I had to leave by saying anything, it’s that I want to encourage that bridge. The economy is not just about one area or one section of the country or another, but we all have our definite place in this ecosystem. So being able to utilize all of the great engineering talent and all of the automotive industry and all of the cyber security plus the projects that I mentioned early on in the interview here in Michigan, I want us to encourage one another to keep that as a forefront.

Don’t let it become an old hat, right? So let’s keep talking about it. Let’s keep promoting what we’re doing because the more promotion that we have in a positive way in this industry, the more success that we’re going to have and people that want to also support it. And the last thing I’d like to say is for any individual that’s listening to the podcast today, if there’s even a little bit of an interest that someone has in getting into this, and in their mind they say, oh, I could never do that. That’s so far out of what I have done and I’m a nurse, or I’m a teacher. No way, Jose. I don’t want that mentality to be real because it’s not true. There’s so many jobs that are in this field today that you can acquire or get with the correct and acquired certifications. There are reskilling and upskilling possibilities, not only through The Next Education but also through community college. One that’s doing a fantastic job here in Michigan is Washtenaw Community College. There are also potentials that universities, so just don’t say I can’t do it because it’s too far fetched because the future is only going to grow more jobs. And if you put your toe in it today, tomorrow, you will be completely immersed in it.

Wonderful. Thank you so much Elaina for talking with me today and I really enjoyed having you as a guest on Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast.

Oh, thank you very much. It’s been my pleasure.

Special thanks to Elaina Farnsworth from The NEXT Education. Learn more about what makes the Detroit region the global leader in next generation mobility at detroitdriven.us. Listen to more podcasts, read our articles and to be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.

I’m Claire Charlton. See you again soon for the next Driven Mobility Moments podcast.

Visit Driven and learn how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

Image of Elaina Farnsworth by Nick Hagen

 


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