Educating students for jobs we can’t envision (Part 1)

May 3, 2018

Three new priorities we need to keep in mind for education spaces—it’s not about subjects, it’s about skills


The idea that education must readjust to a changing job market isn’t new. “We’re educating students for jobs that don’t exist and problems that we don’t know are out there” has been a familiar refrain in education policy circles for at least a decade. We’ve been talking about a changing market for years, and education always responds.

But today, there’s a focused interest, because the rate of change is accelerating. It’s the rate and pace of change that’s going to be harder for education to keep up with.

The World Economic Forum reports that between 2015 and 2020, 30-50% of the skills in demand for jobs across all markets and industries will change and many will be lost to automation. And a U.S. Department of Labor report estimates that 65% of today’s children will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet. Experts say fields like computational thinking, caregiving, social intelligence, and lifelong learning will grow, as will those we can’t foresee.


Collaboration stairs at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin


_q_tweetable:Until recently, our educational system focused on delivering knowledge bundled in categories like science, history, or mathematics._q_Society benefits from an educated population. Fundamentally speaking, education’s purpose is to give students skills that enable them to get jobs. If the skills that are required to get or advance in a career are changing, then the system for preparing students is going to have to evolve to provide them with a different set of skills. It’s truer now than ever—we really don’t know what jobs we’re training people for.

The idea of educating in the dark for an unpredictable future elicits a degree of panic from all of us—designers, educators, parents, and students. Until recently, our educational system focused on delivering knowledge bundled in categories like science, history, or mathematics that could be tracked to career paths like engineering, law, or business. Today, we’re in the midst of reorienting educational priorities to providing a set of skills that are broadly applicable in the professional world.

There’s been a slow movement toward trying to give students the right skillset. Universities have opened more degree programs and offered online learning. The STEM or STEAM program model has sprung up over the past decade and is now commonplace in some locales. You’ll see more new acronyms for cross-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving and project learning emerging, reflecting this adjustment in how we teach and the content of what we teach. Today, we’re trying to get the disciplines to talk to each other and cross streams.



What’s most important in this new way of thinking is not the traditional subject categories but a range of skills that can be applied across a variety of career paths and trades. The labor market, with help from educators, has drilled down to three big categories of skills it is looking for today:

1. Complex problem solving. Lawyer, scientist, engineer, whatever your path, you’re going to need the ability to solve complex problems. You need to be been trained to develop that skill. In the jobs of the future, you won’t just show up and be told what to do. It’s going to be about meeting those daily challenges that can’t be predicted or innovating to stay ahead of the pack. STEAM programs, for example, rely on teams with a variety of perspectives and expertise to focus and solve a problem. One thing we know for sure about the future is that problem solvers will be in demand.

2. Critical thinking. Employers are looking for those with the ability to analyze a wide variety of data sources and figure out which ones are credible and informative, analyze the data, and assemble the relevant info into a cohesive thought or plan. These skills can be useful anywhere from social intelligence work (navigating the culture) to communications, logistics, or sales.

3. Collaboration. Another key skill the market is looking for is collaboration. Team players who can collaborate are crucial to organizations and companies. Collaboration isn’t about personality, rather it requires social skills and situational intelligence that can be developed and refined. As a result, you’ll see the old classroom being blown-up (as top-down lectures) and students gathering in small groups to work together on projects in STEAM-based programs and elsewhere.

No matter what jobs are out there today or emerging tomorrow, these are the big three skills that employers are looking for and those in higher education should be focusing on.

We’re already seeing the traditional silos broken down to foster these skills as universities launch interdisciplinary research programs or create transdisciplinary partnerships, say a biological engineer partnering up with biologists doing genomic engineering to create an artificial limb with input from a business student. Ultimately, the goal is that students graduate with some real-world experience that’s valued and skills that are applicable immediately.

In part two of this blog series, I’ll talk about the types of spaces need for building these skills and a few caveats to keep in mind before embarking on a design for jobs that don’t exist yet.


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