There has been much research over the past couple of years about ‘soft skills’ and recognition of the need to embrace and embed them within every school curriculum. Principal Susan Just reflects on what technology means for our students, and what skills and dispositions they will need to succeed in such a rapidly changing workplace.

In past years, many people expected to undertake study, enter a career in a particular industry and stay with one company for the remainder of their working life. When my father retired some year ago he was able to tell me about the three companies he had worked for during the 40 or more years he had been employed. He worked in the same industry, but he had chosen to continue learning and re-learning because he is a curious person and he was able to attain leadership roles and responsibilities.

The future of work is looking very different for our young people.

Heather McGowan, Futurist and Adjunct Professor at Swinburne University, believes that we are going through the greatest velocity of change in human history and while we are making great leaps forward, the future of employment requires a shift in our thinking.

McGowan suggests that where in past years we might have considered learning to be complete once we finished school or tertiary studies, in the future, because of the rapid changes in knowledge and skills, we will combine our learning with our employment. From McGowan’s perspective, none of us can assume that an individual will have only one career throughout their working life. It is possible that our young people will have up to 17 different jobs throughout their lives and these may be across five different industries. Individuals will be learning and re-learning, adopting new occupational identities and learning to be comfortable with ambiguity and change.

One could liken the skills and dispositions required for employment to the structure of an iceberg.

On the first layer of the iceberg lies our ability to be resilient and adaptable. We will have various occupational identities throughout our careers. We will need to be more resilient and have a strong sense of self as we shift from one occupational identity to another. Individuals should not be limited by their job titles but instead define themselves by their purpose and the value they create within their organisation.

On the second layer of the iceberg lies our ability to have an agile learning mindset. We will need to learn and adapt as we move through various employment fields and roles.

The third layer of the iceberg lies at the water line and comprises our soft skills or ‘enablers’. These are the skills that make us better at our jobs and our relationships with others. Sometimes our ‘enablers’ are visible and evident to others.

The fourth layer, which is at the top and out of the water, are the explicit skills for which we were recruited into a particular employment role. Like the applications on a mobile phone, we will add and delete skills as we need them for the remainder of our working lives.

McGowan suggests that in the future, employers will recruit individuals who have the ability to learn, unlearn and adapt. Individuals will also need to have a good understanding of how they learn and how they can make a contribution to the learning of the team in which they work. While technical skills will still be important, we will continually be learning on the job to keep up with the pace of change. Skills such as flexibility, time management and the ability to prioritise will become more in demand from employers.

Given the significant rise in collaborative work, individuals will also need to be much more self-aware so that they understand how they participate in a team. Each individual brings particular strengths to a team and therefore it is important to understand what these are and how they contribute to the team.

While we are uncertain about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon industries, employment and the way we will work in the future, we know that technology has and will continue to change the types of employment available for our young people in the future.

We want our students to have technical skills when they leave their tertiary studies, but we also want them to have well-developed ‘enablers’ or soft skills. Those individuals whom recruiters will choose for employment will be flexible and collaborative. They will have skills and dispositions that enable them to work alongside individuals who have different skill sets. They will be adaptable, thriving in situations where they will need to sit with ambiguity for a time before they come to a solution.

I find it interesting that while the Australian Government has determined that some tertiary courses are privileged over others, there has been little recognition of the ‘enablers’ that are developed by individuals who undertake different courses of study.

Tertiary courses that focus on the Humanities, for example, foster collaborative skills and a level of comfort in sitting with ambiguity before reaching a well-thought out response. Those who study the Humanities are taught to critically analyse information from many different sources and to suspend judgement. It is reasonable to suggest that these skills and dispositions are also needed in a diverse workforce.

I must say that my own career makes me something of a dinosaur in that I have worked in Education throughout my entire working life. That said, I continued to learn and developed a broad range of ‘enablers’ as I took on the challenge of various roles within Education.

Our students will be moving into a world of work where their technical skills may be learned on the job, but their ‘enablers’ and resilience will be developed throughout their education.