Readying Students for Jobs of the Future: Threading the Needle Between Skills and Success – Teachers College Press

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By: Linda Dale Bloomberg
Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, National University. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.
As I write in the preface to my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, “With the ongoing pandemic and widespread closures and reorganization, there has been a significant and continuing need for reskilling and upskilling as a result of disruptive changes in the job market (McKinsey, 2020; World Economic Forum 2020, 2021).”  I also wrote in my previous blog post, Realigning Higher Education and Employment: Stackable Skill Sets Are the New Currency, many students are being prepared for jobs that may no longer exist, while others are not acquiring the skills needed for the in-demand jobs to which they aspire.  The careers of tomorrow will certainly demand a different set of skills than those of today. Upskilling opportunities will supplement traditional degrees. The great value is that these are affordable, and will fit the dynamic skills gaps identified by employers. Creating employee opportunities through upskilling and reskilling contributes to a better-prepared and more adaptable and agile workforce.  How we meet the future of work, so that working learners can keep pace with the jobs of tomorrow is indeed critical. As stated in Ideas for Designing an Affordable New Educational Institution (MIT, September 2022, p.4),
The concept of “skill disruption” can be attributed in part to the pandemic, which forced business and industry to rethink operations and people in all types of occupations to embrace new ways of working and the application of new skills. But the key driver of change in required skills is technology, which is reshaping many, if not most, jobs. The impact of technological change extends far beyond fields that are intrinsically technical, such as IT, engineering, and science and research. The proliferation of technologies is indeed extending into many other non-tech jobs roles where employees are now expected to demonstrate technical proficiencies as well as their traditional expertise. A report by Korn Ferry (2022) indicates that by 2030, more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled because there are not enough skilled people to take them, and the skills gap is predicted to keep climbing throughout the coming years. The challenge for employers and employees therefore is to keep up, or even plan to get ahead of the trends. Leaders and decision makers essentially need to understand what skills their organization needs and how to access these skills.
Hard skills relate to technical skills, which can be classified as technology based or “discipline -based knowledge” and abilities within a specialized area such as computer use, programming, languages, database management, optimization and the major areas of managerial accounting, finance and operations management. Whereas hard skills are context specific, soft skills, in contrast, are not specific to a particular job, and are transferable across different job types. Soft skills are essentially “human skills”; social-emotional skills, interpersonal skills, professional skills among others, with an emphasis on attributes such as adaptability, multi-cultural awareness, flexibility, self-mastery, self-efficacy, resilience, ability to work through conflict, team-work, reflective competence, social responsibility, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These human skills are in higher demand more than ever before, and we all need to develop and strengthen these human skills over the course of our lifetimes.  Today’s employers are also radically different from those of decades past, and their demands for ideal candidates have evolved. Overwhelmingly, prospective employers now seek candidates who possess the technical skills to get the work done, but in conjunction with softer skills, including communication, critical thinking, and the ability to work collaboratively with colleagues or lead teams. The most valuable workers—both now and in the future—will undoubtedly be those who can combine human and technical skills, and adapt in an agile manner to the ever-changing needs of the workplace.
What does “reskilling and upskilling” mean for the future of work? Upskilling is one of the most urgent challenges facing the current workforce (Fuller et al., 2022, Lufkin, 2022, Weise, 2021). Learning new skills to remain competitive is one essential way workers can future-proof themselves against workforce disruptions, including automation. The practice of reskilling and upskilling also provides learning opportunities for employees to enhance their existing skills, pick up complementary skills, and develop completely new skills to both elevate performance in their current role and prepare them for further in-demand roles. Such opportunities boost employee engagement by offering valuable career development pathways and adding meaningful variation to employees’ regular routines.  Employee learning helps organizations fill in talent gaps while preserving institutional knowledge and nurturing employee loyalty and commitment. Encouraging staff to grow into the skills that the organization needs also lays fertile ground for internal mobility, and easier internal mobility improves staff retention (Maurer, 2020). Importantly, employee opportunity creation offers businesses a competitive advantage within their industries by ensuring that their workforces are agile, equipped, and comfortable in engaging with the most current technologies.  Moreover, organizations can prepare to create programs around creating internal learning and development initiatives or even offering reimbursement programs to those employees who are willing to pursue educational opportunities outside of their own organization.
As Cage and Kaleba (2022) write “job seekers with no degrees – but useful skills – need and deserve more”, thereby leaving more jobs open to qualified applicants. With fierce competition for talent in today’s labor market, many employers are indeed asking whether a college degree is really necessary. Shifting the exclusive focus from degrees to skills–and with learners’ experience gaining prominence–will lead to a larger workforce that is more diverse and representative. Removing barriers that allow more aspiring workers to qualify for good-paying jobs without investing four years in a degree is also an essential step in reducing inequity in our current labor markets.
As automation technologies take over more and more jobs that college graduates used to fill, students need to develop the skills that artificial intelligence and machine learning cannot replicate. In a world of complexity, ongoing change, and uncertainty, programs that are grounded in specifically developing transferable transversal skills will succeed in graduating students capable of navigating the uncharted and constantly evolving future of work (Schueller & Figueiredo, 2021). While higher education is typically organized by academic disciplines, today’s jobs are organized by skills. Youth unemployment has many causes, yet foremost among them are the disconnects between what students learn and what employers need. A “skills-first” approach can enable higher education institutions to align their curricula with labor market needs. Skills can be both discipline-specific—and multi-disciplinary. Multi-disciplinary skills are transferable, meaning that they apply to multiple majors and career paths. These skills thus create a foundation for continuous learning that enables learners to both become and remain employable throughout their lives.
Higher education is attempting to reinvent itself at the same time that local and global labor markets are in constant and rapid flux. As stated in the Coursera Report (2022),
Online and hybrid learning experiences present higher education with immense forward-thinking opportunities. By providing transparency about in-demand skills and integrating courses that teach these skills, these institutions can effectively align their curricula with both local and global labor market needs. Guided by their institutions, students can craft versatile portfolios of skills that enable them to follow their disciplinary interests while gaining job-ready skills. We can no longer accept that students are being prepared for jobs that may no longer exist or that they are not acquiring the skills needed for the in-demand jobs to which they aspire. The key focus, therefore, is squarely on strengthening the connection between the educational experience and career preparedness in diverse work environments through the development of robust and relevant foundational transferable skills. Let’s keep on exploring new avenues to make this a reality!
Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and delivering effective online instruction: How to engage adult learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Cage, C., & Kaleba, K. (2022). Job seekers with no degrees – but plenty of skills – need and deserve more. The Hill, opinion contributors, August, 18 2022.
Coursera (2022) Campus Skills Report.
Fuller, J. B., Langer, C., & Sigelman, M. (2022). Skills-Based Hiring Is on the Rise. Harvard Business Review, February 11, 2022.
Henderson, D. et al. (2022). Ideas for designing an affordable new educational institution: A project of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT
Korn Ferry Report (2022) The $8.5 Trillion Talent Shortage
Lufkin, B. (April, 2022). What “upskilling” means for the future of work.
Maurer, R. (2020). Internal Mobility Boosts Retention
McKinsey & Company (May 7, 2020). To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now.
Schueller, J., & Figueiredo, H. (2021). Adaptability is set to be the key skill for the future.
Weise, M. (2021). Long life learning. Wiley
World Economic Forum: The Future of Jobs Report, October 2020
World Economic Forum: The Global Risks Report, January 2021
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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