Students need to be taught the skills of tomorrow, not the skills of today

As the skills demanded by the labour market shift, universities must prepare their students for their entire careers, says Alison Watson

Alison Watson is the Head of the School of Leadership & Management at Arden University

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Students deserve better – they deserve to be taught the skills they will actually need in the future. Not just for the job they will be working in a couple of months, but for years down the line.

Research conducted by McKinsey Global Institute shows that the need for manual and physical skills, as well as basic cognitive ones, will decline, but demand for technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills will grow. This shift in desirable skillsets has already been occurring for the past few years.

In 2015, the top five skills for employability were: complex problem solving, coordinating with others, people management, critical thinking and negotiation. These skills tap into the more human-like characteristics – ones that are harder to replicate by machine. Employers were also more interested in thinking about the ‘now’ rather than the future, with creativity and active listening falling to the bottom of the list of desirable skills.

The skills of the future

Things have since changed and are set to shift even further over the next decade. Over the past year, newly emerging skills fall into self-management, including: active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility. Even though critical thinking and problem solving remain highly desirable and at the top of the list, creativity and digital skills have become more important, shifting up the list of skills employers are looking for.

Yet we are still seeing graduates wasting piles of money to be taught the theoretics without the practical skills they will need when they have thrown their mortarboards in the air. Let’s take one of the aforementioned skills for the jobs of today: stress tolerance. Almost half (45%) of students are stressed at UK universities. This shows that many institutions are incapable of looking after and helping their students with stress and so we ponder on how they will be teaching them how to manage it on a professional level, post-graduation.

If universities are struggling to develop the skills students need in this day and age, it is safe to say they are probably not looking ahead to prepare their students for the jobs of the future.

The rise of the digital legacy

A huge part of the future, in-demand skills will revolve around the fourth industrial revolution. As defined in the McKinsey research, the jobs of the future will be seeking employees with a set of foundation skills – with AI, tech developments and automation assisting the labour market, the talents employees will be bringing to the table need to complement digital advancements.

Unfortunately, the research showed respondents’ proficiency was lowest in two skill groups in the digital category—software use and development and understanding digital systems.

Despite survey participants with a university degree having higher average proficiency scores in certain talents and abilities than those without a degree, a higher level of education was not associated with higher proficiency in the cognitive and digital categories. This weak correlation is not a surprise. Traditional universities have gotten too used to letting students figure things out for themselves, especially when it comes to digital literacy.

Even with the pandemic making most of us work and learn remotely, it does not mean students are confident in their digital skills and ability to use tech. It also does not mean universities are trying hard enough to teach their students these skills, simply by forcing them to access a Zoom meeting.

Higher education institutes need to work harder. At Arden University, for example, we offer students classes where they can refine their digital literacy skills – regardless of their level of proficiency. If students are struggling to open Microsoft Word or want to learn how to be a pro at Excel, universities ought to be guiding and helping students to learn these vital skills. And I am not talking about an extra module that will come at a price premium. It should be included for all students to ensure they graduate with the same digital skills as one another.

Teaching the leaders of tomorrow

Research also found a weak correlation between proficiency in self-leadership and interpersonal skills and higher levels of education, proving that strong curricula focus on these soft skills may be appropriate.

In order to give students that confidence to lead and resolve conflicts, they shouldn’t be looking at dated case studies. Our students, for example, look at current real life business problems and how to solve them. Whether that is looking at how Topshop could have saved itself or how to prevent the next pandemic, this hands-on learning experience will teach them skills that will be relevant to their job, whilst simultaneously giving them confidence and grit in the workplace.

Another example is allowing students to create their own marketing campaign, for instance, as it will put them in good stead for their future career, giving them the digital and leadership skills they require.

Universities need to listen to what their students want as, at the end of the day, they are customers; customers that are currently not very satisfied with their course. They now need to decide how they will be helping the future generation. I am sure many of us outside academia don’t remember how to reference dissertations and have very little use for it today, yet wish we knew more about the career we were hoping to get with our degree. With the fourth industrial revolution shaping the need to grow our interpersonal and tech skills, universities have a chance to guide and mould the next generation to be better than the last. The only question that remains is: are they willing to let go of tradition and grab innovation at the horns? Only time will tell.

3 responses to “Students need to be taught the skills of tomorrow, not the skills of today

  1. “Let’s take one of the aforementioned skills for the jobs of today: stress tolerance”

    Well, that’s bleak, isn’t it.

    Students of today, your job, when you graduate, will be stressful and unpleasant, so here’s some techniques to help you put up with that, so that you can be a better employee.

    Perhaps we should just skip ahead to the skills for the day after tomorrow and teach students “how to file a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal on mental health grounds”, “how to organise your co-workers to demand and get better working conditions” and “how to recognise an abusive employer” etc. Useful transferable skills!

  2. Pity we dropped sandwich courses, wasn’t it.If the professional bodies insist on stuffing students to the brim with subject knowledge, just about the only way to develop most of these skills is by changing how we learn, and probably then by experience or sophisticated simulation. None of this is cheap. The main exception is advanced digital skills which could and should be taught.

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