Skills at Work November 03, 2017

As technology has an increasing impact on our lives and the workplace, more attention is being given to the jobs and skills of the future. It is generally agreed that it is difficult to predict what typical careers will look like in the future, other than there might not be typical careers. It is believed that people may be more mobile, for example self-employed or moving between different employers, and will have to add value to their professional area as more routine tasks and functions are undertaken by technology. This will have implications the types of skills that will be required in the workplaces of the future.  Students today would be advised as to choose their education providers not only based on their subject or content expertise but also the contemporary and generic skills and experience that education providers can equip them with to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. Here we list some of the skills that will be of value in the future.

A more diverse range of cognitive skills

In education today, the cognitive skills we learn typically depend on the subjects that we take.  If we learn science, we develop skills in, for example, evidence or data-based reasoning. If we learn history, we develop skills in interpretation and conjecture. However, there is often no explicit teaching of the cognitive skills that we develop. In terms of careers, this approach may well be suited for the narrow types of career that we typically embark on – as accountants, engineers, scientists, IT specialists – where we only use those cognitive skills that have been part of our education.

In work in the future, professional roles may be less well defined. We may work in combined roles, for example as scientists and advisors, engineers and designers, doctors and data analysists, and as such we’ll need more rounded and flexible cognitive skills. Education providers will need to pay explicit attention to this. In the future, they may offer foundation courses aimed at enhancing a broader range of cognitive skills to complement or provide a foundation for learning subject knowledge.

A more diverse range of discipline knowledge

Graduates who have a multidisciplinary education may well have better prospects in the future than those who specialise in one subject. This reflects the expectation that jobs of the future will be more multidisciplinary. While it is certainly the case that in some areas of work, such as scientific research, the complexity and expertise needed to make meaningful contributions may demand extremely high levels of specialisation, the use of technology in specialised roles will no doubt demand knowledge of other specialised skills. For example, research in biology or chemistry may increasingly require skills in computer science, statistics and data analytics. For other careers, there is likely to be an increasing need for multidisciplinary subject expertise and specialised skills, for example accountancy and IT, law and media studies, medicine and biotechnology, or art, design and technology.

People Skills

Our workplaces today are often characterised by an office environment and a set of colleagues with whom we work closely, often for many years.  We learn how to relate to them, who we are comfortable working with, who we can trust and who we can’t. By gaining familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of our colleagues, we gain workable people skills in our work places. Often, we don’t regard people or communication skills as something we need to learn.

In many contemporary workplaces, and increasingly in the future, we’re unlikely to enjoy this type of familiarity and stability. We’re likely to get assigned to temporary project groups where we’ll work intensely with a set of people we may not have met before. Or we may take up work assignments with different organisations or clients, and have to manage the unexpected in terms of people and personalities. In this environment, people skills may become important, whether in collaborating, communicating, negotiating or influencing. Of course, this will include online people skills, for example we may be working online with an international project group. We’ll also need to be sensitive to colleagues from different cultures in this online environment.

As education becomes more project-based and interactive, we  can expect a greater emphasis from education providers on how to prepare students for a collaborative future, and in particular providing students with a more explicit learning of people skills.

Problem solving and critical thinking

Many jobs follow established practices and processes and do not require critical thinking skills. They rely on knowledge or experience to achieve expertise e.g. an understanding of policy; working with known networks or channels of agents, clients and stakeholders; the application of established models or technologies to create new products. Generally, the challenge for organisations operating in this context is how to standardise, how to cut costs, how to become efficient. This requires expertise in established practices and an organisational perspective to problem solving.

Increasingly problem solving and critical thinking will not be about how to constrain and streamline but how to innovate and cater for individual needs. This will require critical thinking about the limitations of established practices and technologies, how to redesign systems, how to create new approaches. Problem solving may become more creative, as we think of new challenges and ambitions. This may require more imagination and lateral thinking, as well as technical skills, rather than traditional analysis and reasoning.  For example, we’ll be exercised by challenges such as how to integrate human and technological expertise in services such as teaching and medical care,  how to target marketing efforts and create an impact in a crowded digital space, and how to use data and adapt systems to provide bespoke products or services.

Continuous Learning

Education is delivered in a way that encourages us to believe that our learning finishes when we graduate. We pass our exams, go to a ceremony, get our parchment and then head off into the world of work.  This model for preparing young people for the future is increasingly irrelevant.

The pace of change, innovation, new technology, new opportunities is such that our ‘real’ education may well begin after we leave our education provider.  In future, education will provide a starting point for lifelong learning. It will provide a foundation in knowledge and skills, and, more importantly, it will give us the tools and wherewithal to never stop learning. The tools are rapidly becoming available – through the proliferation of formal and informal online courses – and it should be part of the role of our formal education to teach us how to access and exploit them.

In our future professional lives, we will be able to combine work with learning. This will be expected as part of our careers and life-long professional development.

Education itself will increasingly take on a training role, through the provision of work experience, internships, mentorships and project work. Students will develop work-ready skills and knowledge. In this environment, the boundaries between education provider and employment provider will become increasingly blurred. We can expect new pathways that will provide a seamless transition from work in education to education in work.

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

It is well recognised that as technology is increasingly deployed into routine work practices, and as organisations adopt flexible work practices and project-based groupings of staff, employment in the future will be become less rigid and predictable.  In this environment we may move between employers more frequently, and combine paid-employment with self-employment.  Even within organisations, remuneration may be more outcome-based, for example members of a project team having a personal financial stake in the success of the project.  We will need to be more prepared to plan and manage our careers and our finances, take risks, invest in ourselves through ongoing training, and understand how to advertise our expertise through social and professional platforms. This in turn may require us to be more skilled in negotiating contracts and benefits, managing commercialisation opportunities and investments and in navigating our way through work platforms offering both competitive and collaborative work opportunities. 

Many education providers offer students opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship in combination with their main subjects. This will become increasingly relevant not just for those who have ideas and want to understand how to turn them into a business, but also as a core skill to prepare students for the workplace of the future.

Number and technical skills

More and more occupational areas depend on data and technical skills. For example, online businesses operate in the digital space and use technical measures such as those supplied by Google Analytics to evaluate their performance.  The large technical systems that underpin enterprise in all sectors, such as banking and finance, health, education, transport, energy and resources, are complex, sophisticated and produce enormous amounts of data. It is difficult to imagine jobs in the future that don’t require technical skills in how to use technical systems and exploit their potential, let alone contribute to their development, upgraded and maintenance.  Although many provide end users with simple interfaces, they are often designed to provide information and analysis that require well developed skills in manipulating, interpreting and summarising data. When we consider the implications of ‘big data’ in the professional sphere, and even the way we use information in our online social interactions, there is little doubt that education at all levels in the future will need to include in the core curriculum the basic numeracy, conceptual and technical skills that each of us will need to survive and prosper in a world of data.







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