Screenshot of Michael Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC and a UWM alum, talking virtually with UWM Chancellor Mark Mone about how students can protect their careers.

Michael Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC and a UWM alum, talks virtually with UWM Chancellor Mark Mone about how students can protect their careers.

Michael Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC and a UWM alum, joined UWM Chancellor Mark Mone recently for a virtual discussion about how universities and businesses can collaborate on innovative solutions to prepare the workforce for the future.

At PwC, a global network of firms delivering professional services, Fenlon has helped lead the U.S. firm’s efforts to attract and retain diverse talent, implement inclusive leadership training, innovate key benefits and develop employees’ technology skills through a robust digital upskilling initiative.

Fenlon earned his undergraduate degree from UWM, then master’s degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University. Before joining PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Fenlon was a faculty member of the Columbia Business School executive education team that was ranked by the Financial Times as No. 1 in the world. Fast Company magazine named him one of the top 100 most creative business leaders in 2016.

After his conversation with Mone, Fenlon expanded on that discussion and talked about how students can “future-proof” their careers.

Do you see universities changing to offer more certificate programs rather than degrees?

 I don’t think of certificates versus degrees, but rather new ways for people to build portfolios of verified skills over the course of their life. This includes new pathways for completing a bachelor’s degree, or acquiring new skills long after earning a degree. U.S. census data indicates that about 32% of our population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s degree – highlighting the obvious imperative for non-degree programs that can enable people to obtain jobs in the digital age.

I see demand for credentials that can be obtained faster, at lower cost, and of high quality – in the sense of relevance, application and value perceived by employers.  Some of these credentials or “certificates” focus on specific digital skills that can translate into a job that may be more fulfilling and financially rewarding, or simply to help maintain relevance in a current role as tools and expectations change. Over time, these certificates might also stack into a degree.

I don’t think we should confuse the fundamental purpose and outcomes of higher education, including enabling people to fulfill their potential, achieve greater self-determination in life, and participate in a free and open society – with “earning 120 credit hours in four years” – or teaching “the way it’s always been done.” How can we fulfill that purpose and achieve the same outcomes, but in ways that reflect the evolving needs of individuals, the economy and our society, while using technology and new models for education? How can we deliver a quality experience at lower cost, i.e. – disrupt the status quo and assumptions about how education “has to be”?

I think UWM’s TechEd Frontiers platform is a great example of moving in this direction. Chancellor Mark Mone’s leadership in seeding innovations to help build the 21st century workforce with the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities is also exciting.

Is there a role in all this for some of the humanities/social studies courses in preparing people with the soft skills they need?

Absolutely – I see education in the humanities as valuable, and essential, on many levels, and of course it’s not “either the humanities or STEM” but the role of both in business careers. Just today I spoke with a senior executive in Silicon Valley, who was bemoaning the difficulty of finding students who possess strong analytic, communication and relationship skills, who have a broader curiosity about the world beyond narrow technical skills.

The humanities, and a liberal arts education, can be so valuable in developing skills that are powerful in our careers, lives, and as citizens in a democracy. I’ve known executives who’ve gained insights about navigating the real world dynamics of power, conflict, leadership and personality not only from research insights in psychology and the social sciences, but also the eye-opening wisdom of literature that can help us see the world through others’ life experiences.

Consider our current reckoning and debate about the role of race in America. The study of liberal arts and American history can help us understand that the past is with us in the present – all around us. This is essential to understanding how so many aspects of our society today, including racial differences in wealth, income, poverty, criminal justice and public safety, health, educational attainment and residential housing, aren’t random outcomes, but have been shaped by our history of racism. PwC’s Access Your Potential commitment aspires to shape a future where Black and Latinx talent have more equitable access to careers and economic advancement, and CEO Action for Racial Equity has enabled our people to advance racial equity through public policies that will root out and end systemic racism.

Why did you decide to include diversity and inclusion in what you recommend companies do?

 At PwC, we strongly believe that inclusive teams composed of people with different cultural backgrounds, perspectives and experiences help us live our purpose — to solve important business problems and build trust in society, and our commitment to recruiting diverse talent helps us to achieve this goal. All the things we do to differentiate ourselves are further improved as a diverse workforce — the imperative here is twofold: It’s the right thing to do, and it helps drive bottom line results. PwC co-founded CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, now with over 2,000 CEOs, because inclusion is a collaborative effort, not a competitive one, and it is so important to business, our society and economy.

What attracted you to UWM?

Like many students today, I was worried about how I’d pay for my education. I didn’t want to accumulate debt, as I knew I would likely pursue graduate studies. I also wanted to be in Milwaukee because of opportunities for community service and internships. I was able to work and cover my tuition, room and board in Sandburg Hall – while obtaining a great education.

Do you have advice for parents or students about choosing a major that will help them prepare for the future? Is there room for students to “do what they love,” or should they view majors/certificate programs with an eye toward future-proofing their careers?

Well, as a parent of four children, I understand the desire – and anxiety – of parents and guardians wanting their children to earn degrees and credentials that will help them be self-sufficient and earn a living, to fulfill their potential and do meaningful work, and adapt to a changing world – and even more so when taking out student loans. Does that mean everyone needs to major in computer science? Of course not! But it does mean that we all need to be equipped to succeed in the 21st century economy, to find or create a pathway to fulfill our potential, and to contribute to a free and open society — and that includes digital literacy and acumen.

If you are interested in more information about Fenlon’s ideas, his discussion at UWM is available online, along with a white paper, Creating the Future Workforce today.

By Kathy Quirk