Education system must prepare students for demands of 21st-century workplace

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Education system must prepare students for demands of 21st-century workplace


'Young Irish people are better educated and better qualified that at any time in the past, but there is a question mark over how well equipped our graduates are for this new world of work.' Stock image
‘Young Irish people are better educated and better qualified that at any time in the past, but there is a question mark over how well equipped our graduates are for this new world of work.’ Stock image

The world of work is changing. But are Irish graduates equipped for this new world of work? Globalisation, rapid digitalisation, increased competition and new consumer preferences are resulting in jobs and careers being transformed at an accelerating pace of change. Over the last decade, our understanding of the ‘typical’ worker has evolved. Increasing competition and organisational restructuring have eroded the traditional definition of the ‘job for life’. New roles have been created for jobs that never existed, and the traditional office has been transformed.

This new world of work brings great opportunities, but also great risks; it is more exciting but also less predictable than before. Research from the World Economic Forum suggests that over 60pc of today’s children will work in jobs that currently do not exist. Indeed, estimates from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics suggest that students in the education system currently will have held an average of 10 to 12 jobs by the time they reach 38.

We will also live and work longer and experience different stages of our careers in and outside the workplace, across this longer work-life. It follows that the types of skills required and our ability to anticipate and respond have to evolve to meet these demands.

Young Irish people are better educated and better qualified that at any time in the past, but there is a question mark over how well equipped our graduates are for this new world of work.

When employers are surveyed they are generally satisfied with graduates’ range of skills, their technical expertise and their academic knowledge. However, they are less confident about graduates having the right attitude and aptitude for work.

International employer research tells us that occupation-specific skills are no longer enough by themselves to meet labour market needs. Increasingly employers are looking for a set of employability skills that accompany technical skills to cope with the growing complexity of work practices, the increasing interactions with customers, the need for greater team working and less supervision.

Qualifications and academic results will get a candidate an interview and access to a recruitment process, but their demonstration of employability skills is what will get them the job.

Employers consistently employ well-rounded individuals who have demonstrated their ability to learn new skills and their openness to new ideas. While they might have the appropriate skills for today, unless graduates are also able to continuously acquire new skills, they may not be relevant to employers tomorrow.

Employability can be understood as a blend of knowledge, skills and social capital. Nor are employability skills the sole domain of employment – they prepare individuals not only for jobs but for a changing society and the demands of a changing world.

Unlike technical or specialist skills which can eventually become obsolete, they are the skills which, regardless of whether one is studying philosophy, engineering, psychology, or finance, will always be in demand and will underpin success throughout a career and whatever the field.

Ibec research with employers and educators alike found the key employability characteristics and competencies could be divided into a fluid framework of three areas. These included ‘personal leadership’ skills like self-awareness, creativity, curiosity and being able to make things happen; ‘subject knowledge’ skills such as technical knowledge and how to apply it to add value in different settings; and ‘business acumen’ which included an ability to think strategically and creatively, and to analyse and communicate complex ideas when faced with a problem.

Employability goes well beyond just securing initial employment and includes equipping individuals with the skills they may need throughout their lives to adjust to changing circumstances and fulfil their potential in the labour market and society.

So how can a graduate develop their employability skills? The foundation of these skills begins within the education system. This focus on employability aligns with a focus on academic values and the promotion of good learning as students on well-conceived and rigorous academic programmes often have many striking achievements but, unless they can translate achievements into a language that resonates with employers, then their intellectual, social and cultural capital will not be realised.

Students and graduates have to take responsibility for their learning and their career management, and develop skills through their courses, their volunteer work, their work and their social and sports experiences.

However, supporting the development of these skills requires a multi-stakeholder approach between educators, employers, government and students to ensure that the education system is facilitating the individuals’ development and articulation of these employability skills and that enterprise is supporting students’ ability to acquire and use these skills.

This means embedding employability in the delivery and assessment of education, while business supports learning and practice through work placements and work-related projects, in addition to contributing to curriculum design and delivery.

The success of individuals in a knowledge-based economy will depend on skills, creativity and curiosity. While technical skills remain vital, today’s evolving economy and society requires people with the ability to transfer technical skills in different environments, critically analyse problems and respond to changing demands and people. The future of work is coming. In some ways it’s already here – and we need to prepare Ireland for a new era of working and living.

Kara McGann is a senior labour market policy executive in Ibec, which launched its ‘Smarter World Smarter Work’ campaign earlier this month

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