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Preparing graduates for the future of work

A new future of work is looming – one that is driven by the rapid pace of technological development and new approaches for interacting with colleagues and customers. In this future, STEM graduates are in higher demand than ever. They will find their place at the forefront of emerging industries – virtualisation, creative intelligence, robotics, data science are just to name a few – where they will co-exist with peers from a wealth of other disciplines.

As educators, we know the increasing importance of STEM skills in a world in which almost 40% of jobs that exist today are likely to disappear in the next 10–15 years. We know that today’s graduates will have 20–30 jobs over the course of their working lives. How can we prepare these graduates to respond to existing workforce needs, and perhaps more crucially, to workforce needs in industries that don’t yet exist?

First, we must fundamentally rethink the skills people will need, and how we support them acquiring these skills. Many of these will be numeracy and digital skills, such as those involved in data analytics and coding. Others will be sense-making skills that will enable people to absorb a wide variety of information to inform decision-making in a changing and complex environment.  The future workforce will also rely on very sophisticated interaction skills to facilitate collaboration in virtual, real and cross-cultural contexts.

The enterprises of tomorrow will not only need a greater prevalence of multifaceted digital and STEM capacity, but they will need more “boundary crossing” and creative problem solving skills in our STEM graduates. Underpinning this is an almost ubiquitous level of numeracy and digital literacy that does not currently exist in society.

There are many things universities can do to optimise the opportunities available to our STEM graduates, to ensure our graduates are agile, future-focused, committed to innovation and responsive to ongoing shifts in industry. To begin with, we can support the development of well-rounded STEM graduates, to more systematically emphasise the critical importance of cross-disciplinary training.

The ability of students to take their discipline expertise in science and engineering and apply it across a vast range of questions, jobs and sectors has always existed, but we need to be more deliberate about this into the future. We can embed collaborative, entrepreneurial, critical thinking and interpersonal skills at the core of all our courses. We can deliver educational experiences that champion student-led modes of learning, and treat students like professionals from the moment they commence their university careers. We can emphasise internships, work placements and volunteer opportunities that give students a taste of the world outside the classroom – be this in businesses, R&D laboratories or start-ups. We can involve industry more deeply in our assessment processes.

We can also provide development opportunities both on and off campus that encourage students to place their STEM skills in a wealth of exciting new contexts, from entrepreneurship programs to workshops in design thinking, and combined STEM/creative intelligence degrees. This has the added advantage of providing more visibly attractive opportunities for STEM graduates, increasing those Australians choosing STEM careers.

Similarly for non-STEM graduates, as well as much of the above, embedding contextual numeracy and increased data literacy into our courses will be vital.

If our aim is to create a generation of graduates who will lead the development of new and emerging sectors, and who will carve out competitive advantages for Australia, then we must focus on preparing them for the brave new world ahead. Let’s equip them to become creators, innovators and global thinkers with the capacity to untangle the wicked problems inherent in the future of work.

Attila Brungs

Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Technology, Sydney

Read next: Innes WilloxCEO of the Australian Industry Group, highlights the huge demand for STEM skills in today’s workforce and discusses why it’s paramount for students to gain industry experience while studying.

People and careers: Meet graduates and postgraduates who’ve paved brilliant, cross-disciplinary careers here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com

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