Skills for Life, or, Skills for Work?

The key to success is the ability to “read” the future. Here is an example of vision and foresight. Since 2009, the provincial government of Alberta in Canada has fostered cross-curriculum competencies. These competencies include managing information, creativity and innovation, global citizenship, problem solving and critical thinking.

Today, there is an urgent need for such competencies. Radical changes in the use of technology and the nature of work makes it vital that we rethink the way we educate our young and prepare them for life. 

The very attributes that organisations seek in people — flexibility, adaptability, proactiveness, creativity and collaboration — are skills that the youth of today must be equipped with to effectively navigate their life and work environment.

Human-centered approach 

The 2019 Report of the Global Commission on the Future of Work (by ILO) calls for a new focus on the changing nature of employment and its place in economy and society. 

As we look to our young men and women to contribute meaningfully to the growth of our economies, we need to enable them to effectively address disruptive changes and leverage emerging opportunities. For instance, how do they transition into the workforce? And later, how do they retain employment that is meaningful for them, their companies and society? Addressing these questions is critical to the successful achievement of the ‘Sustainable Development’ goals. And life skills are key for them to navigate the maze of work and to contribute to society.

This requires relentless focus on skills that are intrinsic to both human nature and professional life — positive self-awareness, self-control, communication, social skills and higher-order thinking (problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making). 

A recent World Economic Forum study made some interesting observations. 36% of all jobs across all industries, they estimated, will require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills. Content skills, cognitive abilities and process skills will be part of core skills for many industries. Plus - social skills, such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others — will be in higher demand than narrower technical skills.

Freelance and gig economy

The reality of the freelance and gig economies are here to stay. And let us add one more certainty to this equation — our millennials and Gen Z'ers, who are actually redefining entrepreneurship by becoming ‘solopreneurs’. They work independently, or team with one or two more of their kind, to offer gig services. And they will certainly combine one or more income-generating activities. 

Technology is a huge enabler of the gig economy. This is the prime reason that the next generation makes a beeline for this option. However, experience teaches us that there is more to work than just technical skills. For example, communication skills are a prime imperative, especially as they will now directly interact with clients. Other capabilities that they must imbibe quickly include presentation skills, collaboration, the art of influence, negotiation and conflict resolution. And they must learn all of these much earlier than experience will allow them to.

In such a scenario, the time has come to step past a 'wait and watch’ attitude or remain in denial of this fact. We need to move ahead to invest in education and training that will build multi-faceted knowledge and skills in the technical and functional spheres. Freelancers and gig economy members must be equipped with life and social skills to grow their business and to negotiate multiple and dynamic livelihood options.

Recent neuro-scientific research strongly supports the idea that personality traits shift throughout life and are mediated by professional skills. This makes social skills very learnable when woven into technical and academic curriculum. 

All stakeholders concerned with youth employment — schools, employers, communities and families — will need to take collaborative ownership and responsibility for youth to develop critical work-oriented life skills. They should invest time and effort to design applied skills that require experiential and active learning opportunities. The learning journey should be one that exposes the youth to new ideas and behaviours — besides providing them opportunities to practically execute them under actual work conditions and market demands.

Such education will need to start right from the middle school stage. Schools must be reinvented to build such skills, to understand and leverage adolescent strengths and challenges. How can the academic curriculum build quality and relevance? Can arts, technology, media, sports and entrepreneurship be effective mediums of development? In fact, educational institutions can take a leaf or two out of successful NGO programmes and community-based organisations to learn about innovative youth development approaches.

For young adults, the development of higher-order thinking strongly hinges on the awareness of their identity — their strengths, preferences and clarity of thought in making decisions about learning and careers. Call them by any name – soft skills, business skills or life skills — they are the ones that actually build the foundation for life and work capabilities. 

(The writer is MD and CEO, Randstad India)

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