What Skills Will Our Students Need?


The White House released a report on automation, artificial intelligence and the economy last year and warned that millions of Americans could be left behind given the current pace of technological change. The White House estimates 9-47 percent of the jobs could be threatened by the pace of change. Economists are still unsure of how widespread the impact will be. In his farewell address, Obama underscored how the changing economy and the “relentless pace of automation” and not globalization, are making “a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.” (January 17, NYT)

Consider the facts from a McKinsey report on automation’s impact on jobs (2017):

  • An estimated 51 percent of “predictable physical work, data collection and data processing” are susceptible to automation–this is over 800 job titles on the federal job/skills registry ONET.
  • The service sector is the most vulnerable (even more so than manufacturing) with an estimated 73 percent of food service tasks could be automated in the future.
  • Only 21 percent of jobs are considered “safe” because they involve “applying expertise to make decisions, do something creative or manage people.”

Meanwhile, both the number and nature of jobs people hold is changing:

  • According to Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy, “up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States—or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population—engage in some form of independent work.” This is expected to increase and is broken down into four segments (free agents, casual earners, reluctants, and financially strapped), representing a spectrum of reasons why people are choosing this path.
  • The average person born in the latter years of the baby boom (1957-1964) held 11.7 jobs from age 18 to age 48, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly half of these jobs were held from ages 18 to 24.

So, what kind of skills will our students need? What role should our schools play in preparing young people for this future? The Common Core will only get students partly there. We’ve always known that. Hewlett Foundation under Barbara Chow’s leadership has lead the movement for “deeper learning” which includes problem solving, communication skills etc. Social Emotional Learning seems to be trendy particularly the work around growth mindset (i.e. Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler from Stanford) and grit (i.e. Angela Duckworth). All of the Asian countries seem convinced that we Americans have a strategy around teaching these kinds of skills. I think it’s more a part of our culture than something that schools are doing right now. But I think that we could definitely amp up how schools are organized to support students in building up their capabilities in a set of what I call “evergreen skills.” But I don’t think we can ever know the exact set of a capacities and skills that our children will need to get a job in the future. So maybe we should stop focusing on the jobs and think more about what it takes for them to flourish, a term from positive psychologist Marty Seligman (he has a book with the same title). I must agree with him: we don’t just want them to be happy. We want them to flourish. What types of mindsets and capacities do they need to flourish? How might schools be organized if they were set up to truly enable each student to flourish?

C.