Think about explaining to someone 25 years ago what a social media manager, ride share service employee, or drone operator does for a living. Technology combined with population demands, resource scarcity, urbanization, and other factors have created an array of new jobs and radically changed others.
Getting an accurate count of these new jobs is tricky. Like erroneous memes and urban legends, murky statistics sometimes gain a life of their own. One such percentage alleges that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist. While it’s widely quoted, a BBC investigation into the matter found that it’s more like one-third of future jobs.
But, the question of preparing students for jobs that don’t exist exacerbates a question that already keeps CEOs up at night. According to CareerBuilder’s 2018 Hiring Forecast, 45% of human resources (HR) managers say they have been unable to fill open positions because they can’t find qualified people.
Whether the much-publicized “skills gap” is due to unprepared applicants or employer-created factors, a looming challenge remains: What should we be doing now to give students the skills they’ll ultimately need for work?
While it may feel urgent, this is “not in any way a new question,” says Ansley Erickson, associate professor of history and education at Columbia University in New York City. The historian says that, “it’s just one of several questions that has been asked at least through the past 100 years about the relationship between education and the workplace.”
Perhaps the biggest driving factor is technology, especially automation and artificial intelligence, says Jeanne Meister, founder of HR advisory firm Future Workplace and author of The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees. “You need to make sure that they understand automation and AI and what the impact will be,” she says. But a survey released in February 2018 by The Workforce Institute at Kronos found that three out of five organizations (58%) internationally have yet to discuss with their employees AI’s potential impact on the workforce.
And while the pace of change is “breathtaking,” the solutions aren’t as simple as just focusing on technology, says Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “We need to take a step back and address the educational challenges more holistically, including the issues of access and affordability, as well as readiness to meet the needs of a constantly evolving future,” he says.
“In the old days when you came to college you were trained in a functional area for a job, or a functional job, that you would stay in most of your career. It was a corporate swim lane, and we knew what knowledge to give you,” says Philip Powell, associate dean of academic programs at Indiana University in Bloomington. “The paradigm shift is away from functional knowledge to the ability to be fluid in your skill set and in your knowledge. It’s imperative that universities teach students how to teach themselves.”
Blend learning and experience
Properly preparing young people for this evolving career environment is going to require some changes. Jahanian says that U.S. kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education needs work, especially in improving student preparation in computer and other science disciplines, math, and digital competency. Educators need to emphasize soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, decision-making and others, as well as use technology to enhance learning. And the “transactional” nature of education needs to give way to an attitude of lifelong learning. Public-private partnerships and state- and federal-level education polices should be created support these changes, he says.
Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s more important to focus on experiential learning supported by interdisciplinary classroom education than on job-specific skills. “We cannot teach skills we don’t know exist yet,” she says. “We need a different strategy and make sure they’re becoming lifelong learners,” she says. A January 2018 study published in the Journal of Innovation and Knowledge found that experiential learning reinforces theoretical concepts and leads to superior performance.
McGill has launched some programs that focus on industry-specific experiential learning, while also incorporating multidisciplinary coursework. The school’s new Bensadoun School of Retail Management, opening for the fall 2018 semester, which will focus on the future of retail. The Bensadoun School has an experiential lab where students will be able to work with cutting edge retail technology and real-world simulations.
In another program, undergraduate and Masters in Finance students manage an investment company in which they invest money that has been donated by McGill alumni. Bajeux-Besnainou says McGill’s diverse student population also gives students valuable exposure to students from a variety of cultures that help students work more effectively in a global economy.
Indiana University is changing its career services model. At the Kelley School of Business, undergraduate internships are replaced with student consulting projects. They’re coached and work as part of a team to solve specific issues or work on defined projects. Students develop a variety of skills—both those related to their work and “adjacent” skills, such as job-specific tech and an understanding of other jobs–and the line between classroom and workplace is blurred, Powell says. “We’re taking the classroom closer to the companies,” he says. This type of environment also immerses them in the specific challenges and situations companies face and gives them insight into how their jobs might be structured and how they may evolve, he says.
Meister says that closer relationships between employers and educators are necessary to adapt curricula to workplace needs. However, the education leaders each emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary education to give students the ability to learn the varied skills and can to adapt as new demands arise.
Erickson also sees an opportunity for this future-focused thinking to solve bigger issues, including inequality in the workplace. Innovation sometimes contributes to inequality. We should be thinking about all aspects of improving education—including its role in preparing students as citizens.
“What kind of schooling prepares, for example, to participate in discussions about what constitutes a decent living wage? What constitutes fair employment practices? How do education and employment operate in an unequal society? I think those questions are just as crucial as questions about what kind of technical training schools can offer,” she says. “They are both questions about the relationship between education and labor. But we’re much more comfortable talking about the ones that are about technical skills than we are about these broader ones.”