Changing Work – are students ready?

Home » Education » Changing Work – are students ready?

Photo by Fauzan on Unsplash

Changing work tasks are the new reality, and new skills are required. Routine manual and cognitive tasks such as factory work and analysis are being replaced or augmented by robots and machine learning. Agriculture is becoming automated.  Humans are adapting to a working landscape that was unimaginable 20 years ago, and may well be unrecognisable 20 years from now. Students will not learn what they need to if teachers speak from the front of a classroom and assign textbook pages and exams.

So what is happening in the world of work, and how can we prepare for what’s coming?

Changing Work Trends

We start with a timely and thought-provoking article from The Conversation about why you’re behind the times if you’re trying to prepare students for 21st Century jobs. Referencing an OECD survey, it appears that many teenagers are looking for work and study opportunities that are rooted in the 20th Century. This is a problem because 35% of the jobs that teenagers are interested in are at risk of automation, and teenagers appear to be unaware of jobs and skills with high growth prospects. The risk of automation is even higher for the jobs chosen by teenagers from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and the article calls for greater partnerships between work providers and school guidance counsellors in order to avoid graduate underemployment.

Work is not only changing due to automation and machines, the nature of a person’s work experience and career is also changing, and these four trends are likely to significantly affect the workplace over the coming few years:

  • Soft skills – a complex combination of uniquely human capabilities. At the moment these are mostly identified by employers picking up social cues during interviews, and employers often struggle to define them.
  • Work flexibility – flexible work arrangements, both in time and location, and are accelerating due to Covid-19.
  • Anti-harassment – identifying effective harassment tactics and eliminating all forms of harassment and bullying from the workplace.
  • Pay transparency – sharing salary ranges has many benefits: making negotiations easier, ensuring fair pay, filtering out the unsuitable and allowing the interview process to focus on rich conversations and not money.

Here’s one of many examples of how robots are affecting labour markets in the United States. Key takeaways are that there appears to be a negative relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and job losses, and the broader wave of automation is expanding into other jobs. Nothing new of course, and further research is needed, but a good reminder about what the trends are.

A new type of company is transforming the gig economy in Africa. Called ‘bridge companies’, these companies mobilise workforces, facilitate payments, and bring formal and informal sectors of the economy together, hence the term ‘bridge’. These companies appear to be injecting efficiency and higher productivity into traditional informal markets, and may be the way of the future. Examples include mobile money solution M-Pesa and Cars45, a company that provides trust and transparency in the used car market. 

More people are working from home and entering the gig economy, largely thanks to Covid-19. The gig economy is well-developed in most modern countries, and is expanding into developing economies as well. However challenges exist, as described below:

  • Access to payments – a particular challenge for those in developing countries, where access to a bank account is not as reliable, and people can send but not receive payment through platforms commonly used in developed countries such as Paypal.
  • Payment inefficiencies – different platforms, long processing times, high costs and few options are just some of the barriers for someone looking to enter the gig economy. Workers may need to set up several payment methods, which is costly and inefficient.
  • Proving that transactions are authentic. This is a real challenge, especially as money launderers hide their money through false electronic charges for services online. The trick will be to prove that the transaction and service actually exists, while protecting worker and client privacy.

There appears to be an evolution of the gig economy taking place. The Passion Economy monetises individuality, as opposed to the gig economy in which everyone competes for homogenised services. New digital platforms are creating new forms of work in which one’s individuality is what’s valued, although there’s a danger that once a relationship is established the relationship may move off the platform.

We have the tools and technology to work less and live prosperous lives, so why don’t we? It’s complicated, and there are a multitude of reasons. Yes, the modern worker is far more efficient and productive than one 100 years ago, yes we do 30 hours less housework per week than we did 100 years ago, and yes it is indeed possible for some of us to live a simple and uncomplicated life working only 15 hours per week. However, humans tend to have an insatiable appetite for more, no matter how good things are. Work is also more tied to a sense of personal purpose and meaning in a way that it wasn’t 100 years ago, and add to that the fact that many cannot live a living wage while working 40 hours a week it all adds up to persistently long working hours. Don’t expect things to change as work gets even more efficient, as tasks will continue to evolve and get ever more interesting, and human beings will always want more.

The Modern Working Environment

Have you ever heard a young person or student state their dream job is to be a Youtuber? No question, the top content creators can have millions of admirers and make huge amounts of money, but there is a dark side and it comes at a cost, with many suffering from burnout and exhaustion as they struggle to feed the content machine. For any students still interested, the sad economics of Internet fame can be found here.

Ever wondered what 20 solid years in an office does to your body? Wonder no more. Working and living with computers constantly coupled with poorly set up workstations are doing pretty serious harm to the human body, and work is being done to ensure that the damage can be limited. Hint: start working at a stand-up desk.

Aggressive quotas and incredible efficiency plays a large part in Amazon’s popularity and success. However the cost to workers is significant, ranging from repetitive movement injuries to the more serious. Order fulfilment workers have seconds to process and lift, and everything is tracked in real time. Sometimes injuries are more severe, and it appears that a lack of oversight, incident reporting and poor worker protection are among the many factors that may be contributing to this problem in addition to the drive for efficiency.

Future Skills and Education

Critical thinking is often touted as an essential skill needed to be employable and future-ready. But what exactly is critical thinking, and can it be taught? Referencing research-backed critical thinking models, the teams at Harvard Business Review and Zarvana have developed a Critical Thinking Roadmap, which breaks the process down into four phases:

  • Execute – simply starting or doing what needs to be done. This will either happen, not happen, or happen to a degree. Converting instructions into action requires many elements of critical thinking, and practice.
  • Synthesize – sort through a range of information and figure out what’s important. Practice this, and support others in practising these skills as well.
  • Recommend – determining what should be done based on well-founded reasoning. Recommendations should be supported by a sound rationale based on synthesized information.
  • Generate – create new ways of completing tasks and solving problems. Often this will involve brainstorming along with the other steps outlined above.

What are the 20 fastest growing skills that freelancers need to get hired? It’s all here in this article from TechRepublic. Based on research conducted by Upwork, video editing and data analytics and open-source AI solutions are most in demand, and what’s interesting is that several of the skills found on the list only 6 months previously no longer appear. It appears constant learning and up-skilling are a necessity if one wishes to survive as a freelancer in this market.

As the world grows more inclusive, so do opportunities for neurodiversity. This term describes neurological differences and appears in conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia. Often in the past, the emphasis on those affected by one of these conditions was on the challenges the individual faces, whereas now it’s starting to shift to the opportunities that these unique ways of seeing the world can provide. For example:

  • Those with autism can be highly logical, systematic and detail oriented, and can solve problems in ways that others might not think of.
  • A person with ADHD may be highly creative, and can be highly focused on an area of interest.
  • Someone with dyslexia will likely be better than most at reasoning, identifying patterns and examining situations from multiple perspectives.

As a father of a child on the autism spectrum this is heartening news indeed, and serious work is being done on recommendations for developing a neurologically diverse workforce in the digital workplace.

Future Jobs and Opportunities

This article from December 2019 highlights the top 15 emerging jobs of 2020, according to LinkedIn. This was pre-Covid-19 of course, but does have some interesting highlights:

  • Artificial Intelligence and data science skills are in demand, and will likely stay that way.
  • People are considering lifestyle and flexible working arrangements when considering jobs.
  • Demand for ‘soft skills’ such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration are increasing.

Continuing in a similar vein, here are 5 things we know about jobs of the future according to the World Economic Forum:

  • Technology skills dominate – cloud computing, data analysis, robotics, machine learning and analytical reasoning.
  • Human-centric jobs – this part of the jobs market isn’t growing as quickly, but it is growing. Roles such as sales, customer experience management and content creation features.
  • Women are not heavily represented in high-growth jobs involving technology – this needs to be addressed.
  • There are gaps in emerging jobs, and lots of talent is not participating.
  • A person’s network matters when getting a job.

Continuing still further in the high-tech. space, by 2021 there will be roughly 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs across the globe. Again, this article predates Covid-19 by a year, but still presents an interesting scenario that’s worth thinking about.

This research published in the Journal of Regional Science discovered that “… workers with high cognitive skills, and/or those with people skills, experienced less unemployment especially during recessions.” The researchers found the recessions tend to reinforce trends that are already in place, and that people with good cognitive skills tend to have better people skills, which enables them to bounce back from a recession more quickly due to improved access to services and new jobs.

This is an interesting article from The New York Times about how salaries compare between those who study liberal arts and those who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Research cited in the article found that those in STEM careers earn higher salaries more quickly, but that those who study the arts catch up after a period of time. This is due to technological obsolescence and increased competition from younger workers as people in STEM-related fields age, and the emphasis on ‘soft skills’ in the arts and the value of these in the long run.

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

Interested in transforming your school? Let’s start a conversation.

Scroll to Top