The skills students need to prepare for the future workforce

Students need to understand technology, but soft skills will remain critical to job success

With the rise of technological automation, today's jobs are going to look much different in the future, Joe Pinsker writes for The Atlantic. A group of experts explains how students can prepare for the changes to come. 

According to a widely-cited 2013 study from Oxford University, nearly half of U.S. workers' jobs are at risk of being taken over by innovations in automation. Pinsker asked a variety of experts what college students can do to "future-proof" their careers against the rising tide of automation.

Experts offered their thoughts on the skills students should cultivate now, as well as themes that they predict will characterize the future workforce:

STEM and soft skills

STEM skills will continue to be a boon for students adapting to the changing workforce, especially as technology becomes an essential component of many people's jobs. However, future workers also need soft skills to compete in the job market.

"I would emphasize the need for teaching creative and social skills, in combination with technical skills, which are also least susceptible to automation," says Carl Frey, Oxford study co-author.

Gig economy

Students who already have a side hustle will likely thrive in the growing gig economy. According to Northwestern University economics professor Joel Mokyr, more economic activity in the future will be completed by independent contractors, like those who work for services such as Uber and TaskRabbit.

Human-machine interaction

No matter what field of work students enter, they will likely encounter situations in which technology will augment certain processes, says Julia Kirby, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. She recommends that students begin to identify scenarios in which technology could make tasks more efficient.

Similarly, students should avoid occupations in which computers may soon stand in for humans, says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of information technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

"Think about tasks that are substitutes and complements for increasingly intelligent technology," he says.

Service roles

As the workforce increasingly depends on the use of machines, human involvement becomes all the more exceptional. For example, Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender, and employment initiatives at the World Economic Forum, predicts increased demand for roles in the "care economy." Occupations in this industry, such as nurses, childcare workers, and early education specialists, have specialized skills that can't be emulated by a computer.

Continued learning

The advent of new technologies requires that workers constantly educate themselves to stay ahead. Even after college, workers will need to invest in outside education and skill-building, through the use of tools such as MOOCs.

"The old days when a person could go to college and never have to study again are gone," Brynjolfsson says. "So embrace life-long learning." Fortunately, "there are more and better tools for this than ever, from Udacity and Coursera to MITx and Khan Academy" (Pinsker, The Atlantic, 9/12). 

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