The most important economic issue facing Maine, the United States, indeed the entire so-called developed world is defining the nature of work. The most important economic questions for the 21st century are: “What is a job? “How do we create them?” and “How do we prepare people to fill them?”

For the past 30 years, two overarching and interrelated trends have swept the globe. Together, they constitute the cultural equivalent of climate change.

The first is the continuous integration into the world economy of the billions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America formerly excluded by the political constraints of colonialism and communism. The second is the technological revolution initiated by the digitization of information.

The second trend has increasingly divided human work into two categories – routine work and creative work. Routine work is clearly defined, planned and repetitive. Creative work is unplanned – or perhaps more accurately arises in spite of plans – unexpected and continuously unique.

The first trend has brought millions of people from the creative work of scratching food from a wide range of inhospitable rural environments to the routine work of producing industrial goods for an ever-expanding global middle class. The combined effect of both trends has eliminated millions of routine jobs in the so-called developed world, reducing the security of the middle class that arose over the first several iterations of the Industrial Revolution.

In the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, employment in both routine and creative jobs in the U.S. dropped and then rose again. Not so in the recessions of the 1991, 2001 and 2009. In each, employment in creative jobs fell slightly and recovered quickly, while employment in routine jobs has fallen at an ever-increasing pace, giving birth to the concept of “the jobless recovery.”

Some argue that these trends light the way to an unavoidably bleak future – kleptocratic dictators and religious extremists destroying civilization in half the world, and the irreversible spread of robots destroying jobs in the other half.

Our best hope for avoiding such a dystopian future lies with those educational institutions and employers willing to drop business as usual and explore ways to bring the challenge of learning how to prepare for creative jobs into the classroom and the workplace. It is heartening, therefore, that Thomas College is bringing one of the nation’s foremost experts on the critical linkage between education and the workplace to Maine.

On Wednesday morning at the college’s Spann Commons Summit Room, Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, will address a group of Thomas College faculty and business leaders from the Waterville region.

Having studied labor-training programs for years, Carnevale is well aware of the need to change the content, duration, location and cost of education and training programs.

“You can’t take five years to get a two-year degree if you have a wife and family and two kids and a car,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek several years ago. “They’ve got to go fast. They can’t afford it – and we can’t afford it.”

Carnevale estimates that we spend about $280 million annually on two-year college programs and over $300 billion on informal, employer-based training – with overall results that at best are modestly successful in meeting labor market needs.

Carnevale instead argues for what he calls “Five Ways That Pay” – short-term certificates of proficiency, formal employer-based training programs, industry-based certification programs, apprenticeships and associate degree programs.

Each element must, he maintains, be part of an interconnected career pathway understood by all involved parties – students, educators and employers.

And each must be involved in the process, knowing what is expected of them, how meeting those expectations will be measured and what completion of each will mean in future earnings.

In effect, he argues for involving the student much more closely in the human capital investment decision.

It seems particularly appropriate that Carnevale’s visit to Maine is hosted by Thomas College.

A small school of about 1,000 students, Thomas is unencumbered with a large, bureaucratic administrative structure, well integrated with the regional business community and sufficiently nimble academically to design and implement programs to serve the needs demanded by the local labor market.

Nearly 80 percent of Thomas students are Maine residents, and two-thirds are first-generation college attendees. If any institution in Maine appears ready to put Carnevale’s wisdom into practice, it is Thomas College.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]