Preparing students for the future of work

Photo by Greg Vojtko, 2010

Photo by Greg Vojtko, 2010

Liya James is an entrepreneur, designer, and coach at The Next Lab. She works with people of all ages to take the next step in their entrepreneurial journeys. Liya joins us today to talk about the future of work and how we can all help students prepare for success in a professional environment that is changing more rapidly than ever because of the evolving technological landscape.

Throughout history, the American education system has taken on many different shapes and forms, adapting to the needs of students and of the country as a whole. Along the way, it has slowly changed to adapt to the needs of the industrial revolution, to the insights of emerging psychology, and to the increasingly global post-WWII world.

One of the most recent major shifts has been the digital age. The first personal computer entered the market in 1973. Over the next few decades, computers and automation changed the way we worked, giving rise to the era of the knowledge worker. With machines taking on ever more manual processes, companies increasingly asked employees to innovate and go beyond “just doing their job.” Beginning in the 1990s, technology got cheaper, creating faster-moving and more competitive industries. This meant more competition for companies, and pushed everyone to innovate faster to stay ahead of the curve. This competition has pushed every major industry headfirst into the digital age.

You can see the changes in now familiar companies. Amazon has replaced the traditional brick and mortar bookstores. Netflix has dramatically altered the video and movie industry. Apple became the biggest company in the world, disrupting the music and mobile phone industry. Facebook has revolutionized the way we communicate. These companies have very different work cultures and demand that employees bring different skills to the table than their predecessors. And they continue to push change to happen more rapidly.

Before schools can adapt to the digital age, a new technological era is already upon us. Looking ahead into the next decade, many experts point toward what they are calling the advent of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where changes will be marked by technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and 3-D printing. According to the World Economic Forum, “These developments will transform the way we live and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow, and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skill set to keep pace.”

The world of work that today’s high school students will enter will be markedly different from the one we are living in now. Technology will have changed, and many jobs that don’t even exist yet will be in high demand. What we do know is that almost every job will be enabled by technology and that employers will expect employees to add value and bring new ideas.

So the questions we are all faced with are:

  • What does this mean for today’s students?
  • How can we prepare them to thrive in this kind of economy?
  • What skill set can we teach them that will still be important 5, 10, and 20 years from now?

A key place to look for answers is a recent study about The Future of Jobs from The World Economic Forum that shows the top ten skills that senior executives across industries expect to be most important in 2020.

It is critical to note the top three:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Complex Problem Solving

No matter what happens with technology, the value that people bring to work, and the kinds of skills that will set high performers apart, can be summed up as the ability to look at problems and opportunities from many different angles and frame them in a way that will lead to new, innovative ideas and solutions.

Employees and entrepreneurs who have the ability to imagine something that doesn’t exist right now and make it a reality will be valuable, whether inside a company or building one. It is our job, as parents and educators, to proactively help our children and students to build these skills so that no matter what field they choose to go into, they have a foundation in these enduring skills.

I’ve been seeing these changes in the business world up close, and I can tell you that their importance is only growing. I spent the past year traveling around the country teaching Fortune 500 executives how to implement design thinking in their businesses because they know the framework helps their employees build these skills in creativity and complex problem solving.

This summer, I am making it my mission to give students in Austin a head start in learning and implementing these skills by launching The Next Lab. During two separate weeklong programs, I am partnering with local business leaders to guide students through the process of taking an idea from concept to prototype and focusing on teaching the creative, critical thinking, and problem solving skills that will help them succeed, whether they want a great job with a bright future or want to start their own thing.

But being proactive about supporting these kinds of skills at home doesn’t have to wait for summer! Here are some ideas and strategies for getting started:

Embrace project-based learning. Students who are getting better at the kind of planning, problem solving, and follow-through that it takes to turn an idea into reality are getting a head start on the kind of skills they’ll need to start their own businesses or advance their careers. Whether you are looking at homeschooling options or supplementing classroom education with your own home projects, this site has a great list of 10 ways to support project-based learning at home for all ages.

Learn creative thinking. If you’re like many parents, when you see the word creativity, you immediately think about art, theater, and music. It’s true that these fields require creativity, but the future of business and technology needs as much if not more creative thinking. Mind Tools has some great tools and techniques, many of which can be adapted for teens to approach problems creatively at school or at home.

Develop an entrepreneurial mindset. This conjures up ideas of people starting businesses and slaving away in their basement. Starting your own business will always be an option, but in the new future of work, Fortune 500 businesses will need entrepreneurial thinking to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. For ideas on how to support kids who have great people skills but may struggle in school, watch this TED Talk from Cameron Herold, a Canadian entrepreneur who is raising his kids to be entrepreneurs too.

Whether at The Next Lab or in your own home, I hope that all of this helps you get a head start on the future of work!

Learn more about The Next Lab summer programs here.

Liya James