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How Will The Future of Work Look for Today’s Students?

by Martin Edic
Featured in Becoming 2020

Speed, change, technology, flexibility

In a post-coronavirus world, the nature and future of work are being turned upside down. The most obvious change is the move to working and learning remotely, but this is just the first indicator of long-term changes in the way we need to look at careers and work in general.

These are uncertain times, and social scientists, educators, and occupational therapists are watching their worlds change at an amazing pace. Let’s look at some potential fundamental changes.

Communication skills take the lead

In a remote-work world, communication skills move into the forefront. Social scientist Adam Grant defines communication styles as extroverted and introverted. The extrovert may thrive in an office environment and will often prefer meetings to solo work. The introvert has the ability to go deep on detailed aspects of a project. Remote work requires adaptations in both communication modes.

Grant suggests that instead of using brainstorming, a problem-solving process involving meetings with many ideas put on the table randomly, that we try “brain-writing”. In a remote work environment the ability to express yourself in writing with clarity will not be an option, it will be a necessary skill for all.

Careers will be paths, not predictable arcs

Lawyer, doctor, teacher, electrician—these were all careers whose progress could be charted and whose requirements were relatively unchanged for years. Even before the pandemic, these well-charted career arcs were changing, driven by technology, access to information, and breakthroughs like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Let’s look at some examples that were already being affected by technology.

There are no law books in law offices (except for appearances sake!)
Studying the law usually meant understanding contracts and legal frameworks and being able to apply them to individual cases. But this kind of information parsing is increasingly being done by AI, and many of the tasks performed by legal professionals have become data-driven, forcing the law business to rethink every aspect of its existence. Now, machines have the ability to instantly sort through these vast stores of precedent for any relevant cases.

In some medical fields, AI is better than humans
There are more drastic changes occurring in certain medical fields. In radiology, for example, strides in AI and machine learning are advancing beyond the human ability to spot changes and diagnose their meaning. Radiologists are being forced to reassess their role in the light of these changes. Conversely, roles like anesthesiologist, which requires assessing each patient based on a wide variety of factors that machines cannot process, are not seeing job changes.

Human interaction skills are more critical than ever
Medicine is seeing a rapid move towards telemedicine replacing routine office visits. This requires a different set of human interaction skills, and changes in the tools routinely used to evaluate patients. Many of these changes are interpersonal skills with the “therapist”aspect of healthcare taking on more importance.

Say hello to remote as normal, digital nomads, projects rather than jobs

Twenty-five years ago it was estimated that the average job lasted 5 to 7 years. Ten years ago that number was reduced to two years. Today, jobs are looking more like a string of ongoing projects, with ad hoc teams coming together to advance a new initiative or develop a new product, then moving on to their next project.

The Creative fields like advertising and entertainment have always worked this way, with writers, designers, filmmakers, animators, and more coming together for projects. This will extend into every field. Your résumé will likely be a series of stories that includes measurable results and testimonials from those you have worked with. The ability to quickly integrate with a team will be a major skill advantage.

Knowledge is not enough: technical skills, hands-on experience, and the ability to learn new concepts quickly are key

Classically, the path through to higher education has been more knowledge-oriented and less focused on hands-on skills. There has been so much focus on knowledge that we have a drastic shortage of makers and builders, people who build our physical world. And that world is increasingly sophisticated. Those who choose professional trades like plumbers and electricians are in high demand, and these jobs require constant reeducation as they become more technical.

Amanda Edelhart, Director of College Counseling, offers some insights for parents and future grads about higher education choices that will help you navigate this changing career landscape:

“First, they should think about cost, in my opinion. Students often don’t think about how loan debt will impact their ability to make next-step decisions before it is too late. I always suggest that students look at the ‘career services’ website at colleges they are considering. How well-thought out is it? How up-to-date? How informative? What elements of career searching are they promoting?
Be ‘skills flexible’: There are countless fields where the ability to understand the world around you, to think through complex problems and develop creative and logical solutions, and to communicate those solutions to others are hugely valuable assets for employers.”

Skills and trades will get equal respect as professionals

There has been an unfortunate division between the so-called trades and professionals, usually delineated by the kind of education each group has experienced. These barriers are breaking down, and this will accelerate as many professionals find their work being minimized by advanced technology. Increasingly, moving to a skilled trade is looking like a strong career move, especially for those who thrive on making things in the physical world.

Trades are extremely technical these days. Designing a plumbing schema for a modern home, for example, requires product knowledge, engineering knowledge, regulatory knowledge, and the hands-on skills we associate with trades. These complex abilities mean salaries for these careers are going up, and the respect they deserve will follow.

“At Harley, students not only have outstanding academic opportunities, but they have the chance to hone and apply hands-on and problem-solving skills,” said Seth O’Bryan Director of Social and Environment Sustainability and Upper School mathematics. “Our maker-space, for example, allows kids to imagine, develop, and prototype their ideas.”

Say goodbye to offices, cubes, in-person meetings, endless business travel, and job security

Almost overnight the world has gone remote. We work at home, learn at home, and are almost completely reliant on remote connectivity and access to information. This revolution was already unfolding, but now it is here, like it or not.

The good news is this period of adaptation is an enormous learning opportunity for society and it is already creating permanent change.

Companies and organizations are reevaluating almost every aspect of their relationship with their employees. How necessary is constant in-person interaction? Do we really need business travel? If I can hire a competent person thousands of miles away, why wouldn’t I? And as workers we are all starting to see pluses and minuses in our new workstyle. Maybe that daily commute is unnecessary? Do we need two cars? Can I go into the office two days a week, or do I even need to?

Everything is global: language and cultural literacy is a necessity

Pandemics are borderless. If we have learned anything in recent months it is that the world is a small, closely-connected place. Borders and cultures are not the impenetrable boundaries some might want to believe they are. It will be increasingly important to learn multiple languages and cultural literacy to thrive in any career.

Conclusions: adaptability and flexibility

The core skills of the near future of work are adaptability and flexibility. The flexibility to move with the times, whether it is your choice or not, and the adaptability to apply our skills and knowledge to situations you may never have imagined. Understanding the skills that make you fulfilled and happy and becoming an expert at them is the key to living a great life in uncertain times. The ability to adapt to change is not a “nice to have”, it will be a requirement. Learn to view these things as opportunities, and you will do well.