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Colleges, graduates must adapt to future

Warren Buffett once said, "Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing." Now that the strolling across the stages in funny gowns is over, it's time for many graduates to face an unpleasant truth: College did not prepare them for today's world of work.

Like the old adage about generals preparing for the last war, most colleges and universities are preparing students for the old economy. What else can explain the graduation of more students with education degrees from the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College, Brockport, Geneseo and a dozen other Western New York institutions of higher education when veteran teachers are losing their jobs? College placement offices know that the demographics of the school-age population are going to shrink in the next decade. Yet, colleges still graduate thousands of students who have slim chances of finding a teaching job.

What kind of world should colleges and universities be preparing their students for? A future where energy costs will be high. Our entire economy is based on petroleum, from the gasoline for our cars to the plastics in our kitchens. With the disaster in Japan and the decision by Germany to close its 17 nuclear power plants, demand for oil will spike. And high energy costs mean high food costs. All of our crops are fertilized with petroleum-based products. As fertilizer costs go up, food costs will rise. But as the cost of gas goes to $5 a gallon, other industries become viable: solar, wind, liquefied natural gas and hydrogen. New jobs!

As the baby boomers age, there will be a tsunami of medical needs that will require massive expansion of medical services. Just the diabetes and Alzheimer's patients alone will stress the current system. We don't have enough doctors, nurses, support staff or facilities to deal with the coming tide of medical needs. More new jobs!

Graduates who glumly go from one job interview to the next with little to show for it might want to consider the reception new engineering graduates get in Silicon Valley: they are wined and dined in swanky restaurants and offered five-figure signing bonuses, a choice of positions and stock options. Jobs like these go begging in Silicon Valley because the United States is not producing enough engineers. Technology companies recruit engineers from other countries to satisfy the demand. The technology industries are going to need more graduates trained in the sciences and mathematics in the years ahead. More jobs!

As I remind my students, Darwin found that it wasn't the strongest, the fastest or the smartest who survived: it was those who could adapt to changing environments. Where our grandparents worked one job with one company for 40 years until they retired, recent graduates will change jobs six or seven times in their careers. The ability to adapt to the profound changes in the years ahead will determine success or failure.

Yet this very ability to adapt seems to elude many graduates. U.S. students rank 24th out of 29 developed countries in problem-solving and analytic reasoning. Experts cite several reasons for this poor showing, but I suspect the culprit might be the fact that most Americans spend eight hours a day mesmerized by a screen -- computer, TV or smart phone.

Just as graduates need to adapt to the future, colleges and universities need to adapt, too. Graduating students who owe thousands in student loans, but can't find a job, isn't in higher education's best interests, either.

The risks Buffett referred to can be managed if we know what we're doing -- and why.

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George Kelley, of North Tonawanda, is a professor of business administration at ECC City Campus

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