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April 25, 2022

The future of work: how universities can prepare students for an uncertain future

More people than ever are going to university. In the UK, well over a third of all 18-year-olds (37.8 percent) enrolled on a full-time undergraduate course last year, according to UCAS.

 

And, while some students are drawn to higher education to increase their academic knowledge and enjoy the university experience, most will also be looking to improve their employment and earning prospects. Government figures for 2020 show a graduate employment rate of 86.4 percent, with median graduate earnings standing at £35,000 (£9,500 more than their non-graduate counterparts).

 

Brave new world of work

However, the world of work is changing. Back in 2016, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual report The Future of Jobs predicted that 65 percent of children entering primary school that year would ultimately be employed in jobs that didn’t exist at the time. Progress of this so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is already accelerating, as developments in genetics, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology drive innovation.

 

Fast forward to 2020 and the WEF’s latest study contemplates a world already changed by the pace of technology adoption and the effects of a global pandemic, one that is set to transform jobs – and their associated skill sets – by 2025. Almost half of businesses surveyed by the WEF were already planning to reduce their workforce because of technology integration, with the time spent on work-related tasks (humans vs tech) expected to reach parity over the same period.

 

Naturally, new jobs will be created along the way, possibly outpacing those lost, with increased opportunities for remote working. These roles may require much greater integration with machines, leading to an increased demand for cross-disciplinary skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and self-management.

 

That universities should be preparing students for a new world of work is in no doubt. But, in today’s digital-first world, education will become a life-long pathway. Each generation can expect to enter a cycle of learning and re-learning that will allow them to continuously develop and refine the skills and competencies they need to shape the future of work.

 

Currently, high incomes are associated with traditional careers like medicine, law, engineering, and technology – long-term roles for which university has, so far, been an essential conduit. Looking ahead, it’s likely that few will be able to rely on a ‘job for life’. As these jobs thin out, portfolio careers are likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

 

Addressing the skills gap

There is a global jobs boom – in developed economies, at least. However, this boom is matched by a significant skills gap. At a time when the number of university graduates is rising, some UK companies are resorting to targeting school leavers to fill vacancies – accessing new talent not from the graduate pool but by training workers themselves. It’s a move driven, in part, by a demand for more specific skills than are currently being provided by today’s graduate labour market.

 

The technology sector has been hit especially hard by the gap between the needs of employers and skills of workers. A recent Microsoft study found that while a large majority (78 percent) of UK leaders believe that the availability of digital talent is essential to the sector’s competitiveness, more than two-thirds (69 percent) recognise that the current digital skills gap is putting organisations at a disadvantage.

 

It doesn’t help that the professional landscape itself is rapidly shifting. For example, a 2018 LinkedIn survey showed that companies’ top points of focus were cloud computing, statistical analysis, and data mining skills. Just two years later, these priorities had changed to include blockchain and analytical reasoning among the top desired skill sets.

 

In truth, the future potential of the workforce will depend not just on the ready availability of existing skills, but on its ability to nurture the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise beyond the immediate remit of current job roles and responsibilities. The WEF predicts that the demand for core skills is likely to change significantly by 2025, with 50 percent of all employees needing to reskill.

 

So, how can universities help prepare students for this new world of work, ensuring they learn the skills necessary for a rewarding and fulfilling life outside the classroom?

 

Focus on soft skills

While organisations are often able to fine-tune their employees’ technical skills through ongoing training, the cultivation of complex problem solving skills, together with advanced communication, team working and other behavioural skills can be highly developed long before students enter the workplace.

 

Collaborating with their peers on real-life group projects – virtually as well as in person – offer valuable opportunities for students to meet people from campuses all over the world. Sought-after entrepreneurial mindsets can also be developed by requiring students to work in self-directed ways that are important in the modern workplace.

 

Improve flexible pathways

The high cost of education – brought into sharp focus by the recent announcement of a planned rise in interest payments on student loans – is also a factor likely to inhibit the uptake of full-time undergraduate courses. As the shift towards long-term skills development continues, people will increasingly be looking for more affordable, more flexible – essentially, more democratised – access to higher education programmes that better equip them for the world of work.

 

By seeing higher education not as a one-and-done project but as part of a continuous ‘loop of learning’, it’s clear that more access points will need to open up and that the breadth and availability of online learning, as well as campus-based, blended and hybrid options, will become paramount. Distance and digital learning programmes offer greater scope for flexible study, with pay-as-you-learn models enabling students to access learning at their own pace, absent the pressures of campus-based synchronous learning.

 

Promote digital collaboration

To retain their edge, universities may have to lean more fully into industry collaboration – working with pioneers in the digital sector and tapping into their up-to-the-minute knowledge to help inform the design of academic courses and to share experience and insights directly with students.

 

Partnering with industry leaders in established educational settings offers an opportunity to scale teaching and learning capacity in a more agile way and puts universities on the front foot in their response to an impactful issue.

 

Offer real work experience

Further, as the learning-to-earning pipeline becomes more closely connected, work experience acquires even greater importance. Although employability can’t be taught, students can be supported to apply their academic knowledge in the workplace.

 

Ensuring students have access to practical opportunities can offer students useful practical experience, as well as providing them with access to a potentially valuable network of professional contacts. Universities can also enable access to extensive (and, potentially long-term) digital resources including job listings and internship programmes.

 

Taking the lead in the future of work

The future of work will demand greater innovation, agility, and diversity. In an increasingly volatile jobs market, universities can grasp the opportunity to take the lead in preparing students for the future of work by promoting broader skills development, opening up access to professional networks and partnering with industry to deliver practical work experiences.

 

By embedding emerging skills in their curricula, as well as focusing on nurturing the multidisciplinary skills that will underpin any successful career, universities can improve graduate employability outcomes, cementing their status as the locus not only of academic excellence, but also as institutions committed to supporting the life-long learning that will equip and empower the workforce of the future.

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