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How to enhance students’ work-ready skills

I remember when I finished university a few years ago. I was full of excitement thinking about my dream job in marketing and I was really eager to start applying what I learned. Well, the reality was a bit different.

I did get a job on a marketing position, but I had to face a hard truth: almost 90% of what I had learned in university I couldn’t apply at my new job.

You might think that maybe I wasn’t a good student, or I didn’t pay attention to classes or maybe I just didn’t put in the effort. But I did. I really enjoyed learning about marketing and I was committed to every project that we had.

The problem was that most of what I studied was about the traditional ways of doing marketing and my new job required me to do fully online marketing for a cloud-based platform. This was something completely new to me.

I don’t want to say that I didn’t learn anything useful during university, but from the perspective of the tasks that I had to perform at my new job, I couldn’t really use any of my university knowledge.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had the opportunity to grow so much professionally, because I was able to do everything on my own and learn from my mistakes. But I can’t help thinking that it might have been easier if some of my subjects in university focused on online marketing and current practices.

Many graduates today are facing the same problem I had. When they finish school, they’re not ready to enter the workforce. The question is, how can we better prepare our students for their future jobs, so that when they get hired, they already possess the basic set of skills needed to perform their job?

How to enhance students’ work-ready skills

The world of work is constantly changing and evolving. It has changed a lot since I started working and it will change more in the near future. Technology of course plays an important role in this, as more and more jobs become automated or have a technology component. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary school today will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist.

Besides technology there are other factors that affect the world of work, such as globalization, demographic changes, political uncertainty, and more. But technology remains one of the main drivers and it’s our job to try and prepare students for what will likely be in the future a highly technological workplace.

Some of the most common jobs that exist today are doctors, engineers, software developers, lawyers, teachers, and so on. However, the jobs of the future might be quite different and here is a list with some of them:

  • Hyper-intelligent transportation engineer
  • Cyborg designer
  • Robotic or holographic avatar designer
  • Smart cities developers
  • Augmented Reality journey builder
  • Cybersecurity specialist
  • Digital currency advisor
  • Robot operator
  • Machine learning engineer
  • Business intelligence developer

You might notice a common trend among these jobs. Most of them have something to do with technology. The problem is that educational systems have not kept pace with these advancements. In a McKinsey survey of young people and employers in nine countries, 40% of employers said lack of skills was the main reason for entry-level job vacancies. In the same survey, 60% of employers said that new graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work. And no, it’s not all about technology. Yes there are gaps in technical skills, but also in soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and punctuality.

So how can we better prepare students for their future jobs?

By teaching them the essential skills that will help them succeed. Skills such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, creative communication, and many more. These are valuable skills that students should have right now, but even more so in the future. Below you can find a full list of important skills extracted from the Future of Skills report, created by Pearson.

  • Complex problem solving
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Digital literacy
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Computational thinking
  • Creative communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Active learning
  • Social perceptiveness
  • Technology design
  • Systems analysis
  • Programming
  • Using new and emerging technologies

The list might seem overwhelming. You might think, how are we supposed to teach students all of these fancy skills in the limited time we have with them in the classroom? What do we even know about teaching them these skills? Actually it’s not that complex. You just need to focus on a few basic skills that I’m sure every teacher has already tried to somehow teach to their students, without even knowing it.

So let’s look quickly at a few of them:

Complex problem solving

This is probably by far the most important skill. Students need to learn how to solve problems, how to think about problems from different angles, and how to come up with their own solutions. Regardless of the field they choose to enter and their career, the ability to think and act quickly is an indispensable skill.

It’s also important for students to learn that a problem can have multiple solutions. We don’t want students thinking that there is only one answer available.

To practice this, teachers can present students with real life situations in which they need to figure things out for themselves. Encouraging students to be self-directed and take responsibility for their own learning through individual study and collaboration can help them to develop this skill.

Read more: Why it’s important to support self-directed learning in the classroom

Agility and adaptability

There is a saying by a Greek philosopher “Change is the only constant in life”. And it’s true. We can’t escape change so it’s important for our students to become comfortable with the idea of change from an early stage. They need to be willing to adapt to the changes around them and understand that change is not necessarily a bad thing. Equipping students with a resilient attitude will mean they react to change with a growth mindset.

Teachers can help students embrace change by creating a more dynamic environment within the classroom. You can switch up the teaching strategy, how the classroom is set up, how teamwork and homework is done, and more. They can be small changes but it will help students learn to adapt to the unknown.

Initiative and entrepreneurship

Students need to be able to take initiative and contribute to the world. We want to encourage students to develop their entrepreneurial spirit.

An easy way to do this in the classroom is by setting up a learning environment that encourages creative work and allows students to present ideas and work on them. Teachers can help students organize their ideas and put them into practice – even if an idea may fail. It can be a valuable lesson for students to learn what went wrong and how they can improve next time. Students should never be afraid of trying because they are afraid of failure.

I have an example for a collaboration project that can promote this skill and was done by De La Salle University-Dasmariñas (Philippines) and Mt. View Middle School (New Mexico, USA). A group of students from each school had to identify current environmental problems being faced by the other school, community or country, and come up with simple, yet creative and effective solutions for their partner school.

I think this is a simple, yet great idea on how to encourage students to be creative, to learn how to come up with ideas to help others, learn about new cultures, and collaborate at a global level.

Digital literacy

Today’s students are digital natives, and in some cases they are more comfortable adapting to new technologies than their teachers. Nowadays, digital skills are required in the majority of jobs and companies want to hire graduates that have knowledge of digital technologies.

Students need to be supported to develop skills in relation to their use of digital tools, to differentiate between reliable internet sources, to assess risks in sharing information online and to develop what educators like to call a “strong digital citizenship”.

Read more: DOs and DON’Ts of teaching digital citizenship

An easy way to encourage digital literacy is using a learning management system for all classroom activities. This way students have to work with a digital tool daily to learn, to prepare their assessments, to collaborate, and other tasks.

Using new and emerging technologies

It's important to give students hands-on experience with technology and interactive learning tools such as Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence and encourage them to imagine what the world will be like in the future.

Students should be given the chance to see how technology can be applied to the real world and what impact it could have. Even though technology seems to be taking over the world and there are some negative implications, there are also very good examples of positive applications.

And this doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of free resources online, affordable VR sets, and mobile apps that use Augmented Reality in a fun way. You can even go beyond this, and maybe plan a visit for students at a robotics lab or at a local technology company. Or you can start by creating a presentation for your students once in a while where you talk about what jobs will exist in the future. You never know what might peak their interest.

Closing thoughts

We need to make sure that when students finish school, they are equipped with the skills they need to thrive in the outside world, in what will be a highly technological workplace. Technical skills are important, but also soft skills that shape how students think and react to the world. The classroom is the training ground for them to be ready for the future.

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