It’s a strange conundrum today that we are still educating a generation of digital natives with exercise books and pens. All around the globe, children are growing up immersed in the digital world. Technology is an integral element of their life: they are used to global, 24 hours a day, seamless and transparent interaction; they are used to collaboration when and where they want it; they live in a world where the digital experience is fully intertwined with their reality.
But our education systems are still rooted in the previous century. Yes, coding and robotics are now taught in after school clubs, and the importance of studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects is widely promoted as vital for the future of work, but in too many schools, curricula are still rooted in the foundational 3 Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic), and what happens in the workplace today – never mind in the future - remains a mystery. Just one example: in the UK, where workplace encounters are part of the Gatsby recommendations for education best practice, data shows that only 52% of pupils are receiving this on a regular basis.
This creates a massive issue for businesses around the globe. While technology innovation is changing how they interact with customers, opening up brave new digital opportunities, and transforming how they shape the real world, their potential employees are just not keeping up with the reality of workplace skills. The key question to ask, therefore, is: how might businesses lead on new approaches to education to best equip the next-generation for the future of work, and promote fair access to learning opportunities?
In its 2019, the future of work and youth study, the European Youth Forum identifies four global megatrends as shaping the world of work: globalisation, climate change, demographic changes, and technological advancements. Of course, these move at a different pace according to the economic advancement of a country, but beyond the traditional challenges for young people entering a competitive job market, these megatrends are transforming what work is required and how it will be done. We’ve all heard that Artificial Intelligence will render many roles common in today’s workplace irrelevant in a few years – but these mega trends are about much more than technology impacting the workplace. They are about a fundamental reshaping of the world in which we live, and the way we live in it.
It’s true that the transition from education to full-time employment is more difficult and taking longer. And once in a job, average tenure is decreasing. A report from the Foundation for Young Australians, the New Work Order, suggests that a 15-year-old today will, over their lifetime, have an average of 17 jobs over 5 different careers. Similarly, the shelf-life of training and acquired skills is diminishing and demanding frequent refreshment or periodic upskilling to stay relevant. The increasing fluidity of jobs and rise of the gig economy can mean many young people are caught in a cycle of precarious employment, without access to workers’ rights or social protection.
It’s also true that the Internet is democratizing learning potential – at least for those who have access to it. Online learning is now part of many recognised qualifications, and the ubiquity of video is giving pupils all around the world access to high (or sometimes low) quality education and tuition. However, there remains a skills gap between what we are teaching our children, and what the future workplace is likely to require. And there also remains an increasing opportunity gap, as those who do not have technology are increasingly excluded
So what skills do the workers of the future need? Digital or STEM skills are obvious – those who can create and navigate the digital landscape will be well positioned for success. Cyber security is also a major focus area for business, and a good job pathway to follow. Data analysts are widely anticipated to be in high demand to transform Big Data into business insight; and coders will have the potential to transform the workplace through Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and much more. So all of these can form part of the education curriculum.
However, Verizon’s CEO, Hans Vestberg, has an alternate – and interesting - view. In an article he wrote for the World Economic Forum last year, he emphasises the importance of both science and humanities for a Fourth Industrial Revolution-ready education. In essence, he believes that, as technology evolves, educators, policy-makers, non-profits and the business community need to confront the fact that education systems are not preparing people for the opportunities that 5G and other Fourth Industrial Revolution breakthroughs will present.
Hans sees three broad purposes for education:
To instil the quality STEM skills needed to adequately meet the needs of our ever-more-technological society;
To instil the civic and ethical understanding that will allow human beings to wield these powerful technologies with wisdom, perspective and due regard for the wellbeing of others;
To find much more creative and compelling ways to meet these first two needs across a far wider range of ages and life situations than has traditionally been the case in our education systems.
His key point is that society’s growing focus on STEM has spawned an either/or mentality that undervalues the very subjects that might help us become the best stewards of technology – and particularly such core humanities as history, philosophy, literature and the arts. To master the digital world, we will need both – and we need to integrate them as never before.
In essence, if technology is to deliver on its promise of human betterment, it needs a cultural and moral compass. And the humanities are the disciplines that instil such a compass and will ultimately enable us to make the best use of increasingly potent technologies. So we ignore them at our own risk.
That notwithstanding, it’s clear that Governments and regulators play a critical role in addressing the challenges of creating a future-work ready curriculum. Reforms to national education systems, labour market regulation, social safety nets, health and mental health advocacy, and incentives for sustainable business practices all play a role in shaping the future of work for the better. But is there also a case for businesses to drive innovation in education and skills development for young people?
According to Deloitte Insights’ 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, the principal human capital challenge faced by CEOs is still finding enough people with the right skills to meet demand, at all levels of the organisation – not only for digital- and data-literacy, but also the softer human skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
This suggests a payoff for businesses if they invest in expanding the available talent pool through, for example, innovating for new forms of targeted education and alternative channels to relevant skills acquisition; promoting scalable approaches that are fair and widely accessible; and leveraging these approaches to also support lifelong learning.
So one concrete step that could be taken is for business to work with schools to establish a work-ready curriculum. This means ensuring that teachers understand what skills businesses really need – but also giving students access to real-life workplace information. At Verizon, we do this already through sponsoring school visits, and volunteering with children in our local communities, giving them insights into the world of work.
The other factor to consider in the future of work is the importance of continuous learning. The pace of technology change is so dramatic at the moment – and only accelerating – that we will ALL need to look at learning new ways of working, reskilling ourselves, as our careers unfold. This has to be a major focus for businesses themselves – it’s expensive to recruit, so reskilling their workforce over time has to be a better option.
The idea that formal education should end at 22 or 25 (much less 18) is now completely outdated. As humans live longer lives, with more people working well past traditional retirement ages – the need for flexible, responsive schooling and training models is acute. At Verizon, we’ve retooled our internal learning to try to address this need, with a new learning portal, a new curriculum, and a new approach to how we’re enabling our employees to keep up with digital developments.
Finally, we ALL need to consider the implications of the digital divide. At Verizon, we feel we have a responsibility to address this, giving equality of opportunity to school children no matter where they live. Through the Verizon Innovative Learning programme, we provide free connectivity, state-of-the-art equipment, a STEM curriculum and practical training to help low-income kids bridge the digital divide. It’s about equality of opportunity. We can’t leave anyone behind.
The main thing is that we need to take action. We need to look at how we will develop the skills required by the workplace of the future. We have a responsibility to our children – and ourselves. Reinventing education to support the future of work can no longer be a discussion – it’s a business imperative.
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