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Bright Futures

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The skills teens need to develop in order to excel in the workplace post-COVID may not be the ones they learn in university. Dorothy Veitch reports

Living in Discovery Bay has fantastic advantages for teens. Young people growing up here acquire an international set of friends, excellent schooling, exposure to different cultures and, until very recently, amazing travel opportunities. As parents, we make every effort to prepare our ‘kids’ for life ahead. Before they fly the nest, we teach them to cook simple meals, use a washing machine, budget a monthly allowance – and to be both compassionate and resilient. But are we doing enough to ensure their future employability in a post-COVID world?

With the pandemic causing a projected loss of 195 million jobs, along with dismaying interruptions to education, preparing young people to earn and thrive when they enter the world of work requires our immediate attention.

Soft skills include the ability to communicate well with others

Sought-after skills
The world we live and work in is increasingly volatile, uncertain and ambiguous. Our children are likely to enjoy longer life spans and working lives, very different work opportunities and more career changes. The World Economic Forum predicts that more than 1 billion jobs, almost one-third of all jobs worldwide, will be transformed by technology in the next decade. Young people will need a highly specific skills set to respond to this reality with the ingenuity to earn an income.

Traditional ‘hard’ skills, like writing, mathematics and science, continue to have a place in the worlds of academia and of work, but employers are increasingly focused on ‘soft skills’ that are applicable across multiple disciplines and careers. Soft skills include the ability to communicate well and adapt to changing circumstances, and the willingness to learn through experience, problem-solve and think entrepreneurially.

The top five employment skills identified by The World Economic Forum as being most in demand by 2021 are complex problem solving, work, critical thinking, creativity, people management and coordinating with others. The top three skills are considered absolutely essential for all teenagers to cultivate. Creativity, now considered the third most important job skill, has jumped from tenth place in 2015. Emotional intelligence and cognitive thinking did not make the top 10 ranking in 2015, they now place sixth and tenth respectively.

New ways of learning
This changing environment calls for a transformation in how we think about learning. Young people must ‘learn to learn’ in order to develop the abilities required to gain new skills and adapt, which will help them secure work opportunities. They must also ‘learn to discern’ between reliable information and that which is false or misleading.

Skill #1: Learn to learn: To participate and thrive in a rapidly evolving world, young people must become power learners. Learning to learn helps them rapidly gain skills and knowledge to adapt to changes and succeed. This skill is particularly important as the COVID-19 pandemic causes dramatic shifts in the work opportunities available.

When it comes to learning performance, 40% is due to metacognition – organising and guiding one’s own learning processes, thinking and actions – but most teaching methods do not prioritise these skills as myths persist that learning relies on innate intelligence, rather than on developing skills and habits. Students need to be encouraged to take charge of their learning journey by applying a growth mindset which strengthens their agility and openness to learning. This helps them guide their own learning and translate this knowledge into action.

Skill #2 Learn to discern: Bombarded by information, young people must have the skills to identify and resist manipulative content, in addition to the self-belief to call out misinformation when they see it. Learning to discern sets teens up to become resourceful employees, leaders and entrepreneurs.

During the pandemic, perhaps as never before, young people are weighing information, including misleading information about health risks, to make decisions about their futures. Inability to recognise disinformation and misinformation can negatively impact real-life decisions and actions, target emotional triggers and feed confirmation bias. When young people receive information, they need to have the healthy information engagement skills to check those sources before spreading the information or pursuing opportunities.

The secret of success
In addition to becoming power learners and discerning thinkers, young people need to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets. Exposure to reflective practice and problem-based learning will help them achieve this, and become better able to identify earning opportunities.

Reflective practice is a teaching method that prioritises time for critical reflection. Young people need to be given opportunities to pause and reflect on their progress towards learning goals, and on their ability to apply skills learnt.

Teens need to be given the opportunity to learn new concepts and skills over time through practice. Authentic learning takes place gradually, rather than at one discernible point in a curriculum or training programme. Young people with access to enabling conditions for learning – including critical reflection, feedback and support from peers – can develop the values, habits and self-reliance to become power learners.

Problem-based learning sees teens engaged in solving relevant, real-world problems, and building a can-do attitude in the process. Real-world projects have the added benefits of providing concrete work-related experiences and building networks, which can help young people develop entrepreneurial mindsets to overcome barriers to earning and employment.

Beyond the classroom
Many of us spent the first third of our lives acquiring the college degrees we needed to find jobs. These degrees are the stamps on our professional passports that pave the way for the remaining two-thirds of our journey. This implies that the nature of our work, along with the skills and knowledge required to execute it, remains unchanged for a lifetime – which of course is no longer true.

Our children can expect to have many different jobs and careers throughout their professional lives – perhaps even at the same time, with the maturing of the gig economy. Arguably then, the future of work will not be about college degrees; it will be about job skills.

Finding the right people with the right skills and mindset is a serious challenge for any enterprise. Using a four-year degree as a proxy for employability means relying on talent with potentially redundant skills rather than lifelong learners with ever-relevant skills. If we shift our focus from degrees to skills, we’ll enable a bigger more diverse workforce, and we will help close the all too familiar opportunity and employment gaps. This will mean transitioning to a skills-based education and employment infrastructure that embraces not just credentials and certification but fitness-for-job and employment as outcomes.

In recent years, many corporation giants, including Ernst & Young, Google and IBM, have embraced\ this kind of thinking and have increased hiring from alternate talent pools. Several more are investing in continuous learning for the workforce.

Others, like Infosys, following COVID-19, have already created free, online platforms to provide job training and apprenticeship opportunities for job-seekers and to connect them with employers offering them new work streams and career pathways.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow report (2020), we can expect a rapid influx of roles at the forefront of the data and AI economy, as well as new roles in engineering, cloud computing and product development.

Emerging professions also reflect the continuing importance of human interaction in the new economy, giving rise to greater demand for care economy jobs, and people-oriented roles in marketing, sales and content production. These jobs need talent with relevant skills, and importantly these skills can be learnt either through apprenticeship programmes or on the job by those without college degrees.


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