Future of Work Blog Series| Preparing for the Many Futures of Work

Andrew Baird, President & CEO, Education For Employment – Global (EFE-Global)

Thirty-three years ago, my university commencement speaker claimed that college graduates of my generation would have six jobs in their lifetime – as opposed to the 1.5 average of our parents’ generation.  Earlier this year, I started my sixth job.  How did he know?

When we graduated, my peers and I did not realize that we were the start of a trend towards increased job mobility, or instability, that has rapidly accelerated in the past thirty years.  For example, LinkedIn analyzed the career trajectories of three million US college graduates and found that in the first ten years out of university, those born in the second half of the 1980s (‘Gen X-ers’) held two jobs before the age of 32.  For millennials, that number is four. This means that in many families, young adults will hold twice as many jobs as their parents in their first decade out of university.

Many factors are driving this shift.  Technology, the pace of innovation, and the greatly accelerated business cycles in many industries are the powerful forces.  Even hugely successful businesses may come and go in a decade or less.  Failed businesses can be gone in a year or two.  Whole industries disappear, arise or morph faster than ever before: consider the near-disappearance of video rentals and photofinishing, or the growing prominence of internet-enabled roles such as social media management, or geriatric care as medical technology stretches the final decades of life.

Change has accelerated within businesses, too. To adapt and survive, many rapidly transform in ways that demand new skillsets from employees.  Already, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020, and according to recent McKinsey projections, half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, meaning incoming and many current employees will need new skills to remain employable.  

The increase in job switching is a symptom of seismic changes in the global economy that many refer to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘the future of work.’  Both are somewhat misleading, as they suggest a singular event that occurs and results in the establishment of a new status quo.  But there is not one ‘future of work’ – there are many.   The dynamics of this ‘revolution’ will continue to redefine work around the world in an ongoing manner.  They will necessitate continuous shifts in how educators, employers, and youth themselves approach the transition into the workforce.

So what does this mean for education and training?

Youth today already face a skills gap, as the surprisingly high rate of youth unemployment, particularly among college graduates in many countries, suggests.  But given the rapidity of change, today’s skills gap is tomorrow’s skills chasm. 

Our experience at Education For Employment, where we have linked thousands of unemployed youth in the Middle East and North Africa to employment, suggests that collective action is necessary, and it starts with employers.  As an important first step, industries and employers must develop enhanced mechanisms to project the skills they will need as each industry transforms. 

With this data, we need to build better, faster feedback loops between employers and educators.  Once skills needs are projected, curriculum development and deployment needs to occur at a much more rapid pace, and in constant contact with industry.  US community colleges are often held up as models where this is happening well on a local level.  Iteration will be key – gone are the days of textbooks and curricula in use for decades. There must be increasing levels of contact between education and employers – from classrooms to on-the-job training opportunities.

Schools must adapt to serve life-long learning needs.  The importance of soft skills such as goal-setting, time management, prioritization, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communications cannot be overstated.  At EFE, we have witnessed our graduates use the soft skills we teach to navigate challenging labor markets amid political and economic instability.  As technology further changes markets in MENA and beyond, soft skills will only become more important. 

Alongside a suite of soft skills, technology skills will form the other pillar of education fundamentals for youth in the future.  No longer a silo-ed, stand-alone sector, technology is now an organic part of newly emerging industries, and an enabler of change in existing ones.  Our education systems must reflect this.

Youth themselves have an important role to play.  They must learn how to adapt, identify opportunities and use trends to their professional advantage. They must become discerning consumers of information about education, training and employment opportunities.  Governments and civil society must support in this regard by providing information flows about the direction of the future of work that allow youth and parents - the frontline influencers who play a role in their education decisions - to make informed choices about where they will invest their valuable resources in education.

Successfully preparing youth for the workforce requires employers, industry, educational institutions, civil society and governments to engage at a number of levels.  Incentivizing this engagement is a critical role for those working to prepare the current and next generation for the many futures of work.