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Preparing graduates for jobs that don’t yet exist

How can we prepare graduates for work when we don't understand what work will be like in the future? For Martin Perfect at Staffordshire University, it may be all about a growth mindset.
This article is more than 4 years old

Martin Perfect is Head of Student & Graduate Employability at Staffordshire University.

Andrew Proctor is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital) at Staffordshire University

“Industry 4.0” is staring us in the face. Robots are coming to take over the world.

And the question of how universities – either in their formal teaching or learning, or though extra- or co-curricular activity and support, can prepare graduates for jobs that “don’t yet exist”, is one I’m hearing more and more – both inside and around the edges of the sector.

There is a more urgent question – whether we are preparing graduates for the jobs that exist now. For some the answer is straightforward – here at Staffordshire for example we are training the nurses, paramedics, midwives, teachers, and engineers of tomorrow.

But we also have thousands of students on degree courses that are non-vocational – in areas such as business, sports, biology, psychology and the creative arts. As Mike Grey of Gradconsult highlighted in a recent Wonkhe article, course rarely equals career – and maybe we should be celebrating this a little more than we do. Mike references that 70 to 80 per cent of graduate jobs are now accessible to graduates from any degree course. So if we are not preparing the majority of our students for a specific job, job role, or sector, what are we teaching them?

There’s an acronym

There are plenty of reports that predict what the employment market could look like in 2030. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills explores lots of different options in its publication The Future of Work – Jobs and Skills in 2030, and highlights that trying to predict ten years into the future is harder than ever. But there are certainties consistently highlighted – the increasing use of technology, and increasing uncertainty and instability of work as we know it today. They suggest that our focus should be on the Knowledge, Understanding, Skills, Attributes and Behaviours (KUSAB) that might be required to be successful in that future.

There is a lot of talk across the sector about the potential impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) on higher education. At Staffordshire, we are pursuing what we call a “human-centric” approach to AI, and we have already started to use this technology to both free up people’s time from repetitive, transactional activities and also to promote and guide people towards increased social connectivity and activity. We anticipate that this approach will closely mirror the future world of work – there will be a decreasing requirement for transactional skills and much more focus on the power of problem solving, collaboration and creativity.

Growing up

These skills are not futuristic – in fact they have been on the wanted list of employers for decades. Many are associated with a “growth mindset” and the work of Dr Carol Dweck (over 30 years ago), and with so much conjecture in the last eight to ten years about the so called “snowflake generation”, reminding students about the benefits of a growth mindset has never been more crucial:

  • Understanding that failure is often the norm and can be a positive learning experience is crucial during the transition into HE, navigating a path through and successfully progressing into successful careers.
  • Developing an inquisitive mindset needs to be built into the curriculum and is more visible today with cross and interdisciplinary working becoming more commonplace. Simple changes to assessment approaches, such as using video interviewing software instead of the standard 3000-word essay can make a huge difference to the confidence and belief a student has.
  • This adventure to try more and learn more should also be strongly re-enforced at every possible opportunity. Support services, students’ unions, employers, mentors and personal tutors all have a real role to play in positively challenging students to feel increasingly comfortable with managing and embracing change.

So as curriculum reviews and academic strategies across the UK and beyond take place to “future proof” the value that higher education has to offer, we must remember that our role is to develop a hunger to learn, to challenge, to shape, to solve and to bounce back even stronger. We are aiming to create a desire to learn and keep learning in every setting and situation we find ourselves in. Technology will change, industry will change, learning will change and work will change – what we need to change is how we use technology to align work and learning.

In the next decade students will still want to study a specific subject but in the future maybe we need to be braver and bolder and more explicit about all of the other knowledge, understanding, skills, attributes and behaviours students develop. After all, “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

7 responses to “Preparing graduates for jobs that don’t yet exist

  1. Agree with this… employability is everyone’s business it should not be the preserve domain of the careers team but holistic, connected & embedded in curriculum. signposted at all points of the student journey. Assessment criteria must be built to reward the creative risk taker, the collaborator … a challenge when increasingly ‘right’ answers are favoured for quality transparency…and collaboration discouraged.

  2. Great article. Thanks both! Caused me to wonder what the really effective higher education employees of the future might look like, in parallel to our ‘future-proofed’ students?

  3. Agree with most you’ve said but take issue with the view creative arts are non-vocational. Particularly as the three bullet points outlining what skills and mindsets industry 4.0 requires, are exactly what would be covered as part of the creative pedagogy and process on any arts, media and design higher education programme.

  4. Agreed! If we’re seeking to enhance skills in co-creation, inquisitiveness and resilience to challenge and failure for our students, let’s do the same for people working in universities too. Really great read.

  5. Interesting article, but having spent a few decades in the field of employability, this isn’t a new issue. “How can we prepare students for jobs that don’t exist” tends to come around every ten or so years. If you think about it, the whole area of employability and career development is about preparing individuals for the unknown. The list of skills employers wants has remained pretty constant for the last 30 odd years; my argument would be it is the knowledge that changes. Therefore, our best strategy is concentrating on mindset, behaviours, strengths and attitudes – which is something tangible that we careers professionals can hook into.

  6. You can also find out how King’s Careers & Employability has developed an approach for KCL to enabling students and graduates to surface the employability value of their curriculum learning in a bespoke way that supports them to be more future ready; details in the Advance HE Case Study compendium on graduate employability downloadable here:
    One key to future career agility is moving away from a narrative about ‘qualifications as knowledge assets’ towards ‘education as learning’, supported by PwC, the WEF and Dweck and others talking about the importance of learning agility and commitment to ongoing learning rather than simply knowledge gain. That is going to be a challenging narrative to shift, but it’s critical for students if they are to navigate their future choices.

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