A quick guide to the role of educational institutions in creating a new workforce.

GUEST COLUMN | by Heide Abelli

As organizations seek to become digital businesses, the readiness of their workforces becomes priority #1. Jobs are growing more technical in nature with required skill sets in coding, design thinking, data science and a myriad of new technologies like AI and machine learning. Equally important to the technical skills are mandatory soft skills—communication, empathy, critical thinking, curiosity and creativity—that transfer from job to job and workplace to workplace. Finally, employees in today’s workplace collaborate in intense ways as innovation is unlocked through the work of mission-driven teams.

The Role of Educational Institutions

Educational institutions should play a significant role in closing the employment skills gap by effectively preparing students to meet the needs of the 21st century workforce. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the school-to-work transition is insufficiently supported by educational institutions. Let’s start with the technical skills required for work success. There is no question that in the future we will need significantly more coders than we have today. Education and certification in areas like data science, cloud computing, mobile and software development will be mandatory for a large percentage of the workforce.

Most high schools and colleges still require students to meet a foreign language requirement. While beneficial, requiring students to speak the basic languages of computer science, such as python, would be equally valuable. We have too few kids graduating with STEM degrees and too little emphasis on technical skills in the K-12 education process. The increased technologizing of jobs will mean that organizations will need armies of “citizen data scientists” and “citizen developers” infiltrated across its ranks. But today’s educational institutions are ill-equipped to churn out the sheer volume needed—leaving companies to absorb the training and development burden.  

First Steps in Closing the Skills Gap

There are ways to incorporate elements of the critical hard skills demanded in today’s workplace into the K-12 and college curriculums. More emphasis in assignments and assessments can be placed on data synthesis and analysis, critical thinking and problem solving than on memorization and recitation of facts. School assignments should require elementary programming skills, and projects should include elements of design thinking. Completion of a basic computer science course should be requirement for high school graduation.

Greater collaboration between business and educational institutions, particularly higher education institutions, can help better align the curriculum to meet the need. By teaching employable skills and offering academic programs aligned to industry needs, some institutions are chipping away at the problem.

For example, East Tennessee State University’s partnership with Adobe provides an undergraduate program giving students two years of experience using the Adobe Marketing Cloud. Another is the emergence of specialized programs and degrees offered in areas like data science by some schools. Northeastern University, for instance, is developing coding boot camps that include partnerships with businesses. There is likely a big role for community colleges to play here as well. However, the level of intensity around all this needs to accelerate rapidly to better support the requirements of today’s companies.

Mission-Driven Teams

Educational institutions must adjust curriculums to teach the soft skills required for success in today’s workplace. As the average job now contains more “non-routine” work than ever before, employees must possess higher-order cognitive skills such as complex critical thinking, extensive data literacy, algorithmic thinking, problem solving, creativity and real-time collaborative skills. For this to happen, educational institutions will need to do a better job growing students’ cognitive skills for non-routine work.

Teamwork and collaborative learning also need to be emphasized far more aggressively in the curriculum than they are today. The unit of execution in the workplace is the mission-driven team and yet the success of the individual, not the team, is the focal point of the educational system. When most educational training is devoid of collaboration, organizations find themselves with a workforce ill-prepared for the kind of intense collaboration required for innovation. Students need more team-based work assignments and their ability to successfully collaborate with others needs to be a key aspect of performance evaluation.

Mindset of the Future Worker

Finally, the future worker will need a curious mindset that welcomes learning new things. One of the most important things that educational institutions can instill in young learners is the notion of growth mindset and cognitive flexibility. Employability in the future will depend much less on what students already “know” and more on how well they can learn new material, apply what they have learned to novel situations and adapt. Students need to embrace learning, resilience, a capacity for adaptation and the notion of continuous development from their very first days in the classroom.

Heide Abelli is Senior VP of Content Product Management for Skillsoft, a worldwide leader in corporate learning. She is an adjunct professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College where she teaches a required core course in business strategy to undergraduate seniors. She previously served as a Managing Director of Product and Operations for Harvard Business Publishing. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Wellesley College. Contact her through LinkedIn