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Careers Education for the ‘no-collar’ worker

  • 7 July 2021
  • By Nikita Khandwala & Mary Curnock Cook

Nikita Khandwala (@nikitakhandwala) is an Insights analyst at LinkedIn and co-founder of Unbox. She graduated from the University of Oxford in 2020 and is a member of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, chaired by Mary Curnock Cook (@MaryCurnockCook), who has also contributed to this blog.

COVID-19 has accelerated the evolving nature of the modern workforce. Young people are embracing new ways of working and living, but our education system may not be preparing them with the requisite skills, knowledge, or experience to thrive in the future of work. How can we craft an educational environment that helps students build timeless competencies that will enable them to upskill continuously and thrive in an ever-changing landscape?

For the majority of human history, work has been an economic necessity, rather than a lifelong journey to seek fulfilment. Today’s work paradigms are rooted in automation and factory work sparked by the Industrial Revolution. Workers set foot upon the unrelenting treadmill of labour division, mass manufacturing and rote specialisation. All the while the fruits of their labour became less visible and meaningful.

Workers rent out their most precious resource – time – to companies in return for financial stability and increased purchasing power. This basic cycle of ‘earn and consume’ is the bedrock of modern capitalism. We like to believe society has evolved since agriculture was king. Yet in 2021, capitalism has us trapped in the very same hamster wheel. Or has it?

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the reversal of this economic norm. Across the Atlantic, the term ‘passion economy’ – coined by Silicon Valley investor Li Jin – has started to gain traction. The passion economy empowers people to monetise their unique skills or passions. This type of economy is reliant on something called leverage.

The most interesting and the most important form of leverage is the idea of products that have no marginal cost of replication. This was only invented in the last few hundred years. It started with the printing press. It accelerated with broadcast media, and now it’s really blown up with the internet and with coding. Now, you can multiply your efforts without involving other humans and without needing money from other humans. Eric Jorgenson, influential blogger, thinker on wealth and happiness.  

Today, the unprecedented ease with which a person can create leverage has opened up thousands of routes to financial independence that simply didn’t exist in the pre-internet age. The passion economy is uncoupling work from traditional employment, powering a shift to a more distributed, digital and individualised workforce. 

Unbox – a start-up founded at the height of the pandemic by three entrepreneurs from the University of Oxford and UCL – is on a mission to empower young people to thrive in this new world of work. Unbox aims to transform the meaning of a career by building a platform through which Gen Z-ers can create, share and showcase their professional ‘leverage’.

This type of leverage is exactly what motivates the newest generation of workers. According to Daniel Pink, the American author and former speechwriter for Al Gore, humans are driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose, all of which independent, flexible work can facilitate. Never has this been clearer than in a post-pandemic world, where the paralysing consequences of COVID-19 saw childhood bedrooms morph into video call backgrounds; Zoom University evolve from ironic meme to global reality; and new recruits fired a month after they were hired. In response, enterprising young people in the UK set up lockdown businesses to deliver food to vulnerable senior citizens and side-hustles sprang up to help tutor schoolchildren plagued by distanced learning. With the freelance economy in the UK now worth £109 billion, and 53% of Gen Z-ers wanting to start their own business in the future, many young people will amass a diverse range of professional experience by flexibly ‘productising’ their skills, experiencing multiple roles and sectors throughout their working lives. We have entered the era of the portfolio career and the ‘no-collar’ worker.

If we are experiencing the greatest disruption to the workforce since the Industrial Revolution, what new skills do people entering the workforce need? 

Education has traditionally been restricted to the first two decades of life. In an industrial world where the same skills remained relevant throughout one’s working life, this made sense. But with a more flexible workforce on the horizon, it is imperative that education keeps pace with the changing labour market. By 2025, it is expected that 85 million jobs will be displaced, while 97 million new ones will be created. With the majority of today’s skills having a shelf life of just 5 years, workers will require constant reskilling throughout their careers. 

At a time of political instability, the accelerating spread of misinformation, rising social inequalities and the looming climate crisis, transforming the way we educate students is both an educational and economic imperative. We must focus not only on preparing young people for a future of portfolio careers, micro-entrepreneurship and a technology-fuelled economy, but also empower them to shape new political and social systems that serve contemporary, rather than historical needs. In a society where anyone with an Internet connection can find a market for their unique skills, barriers to income generation are lowered, creating a path for everyone to experience upward social mobility. In short, this changing economy offers a glimpse of a more equitable society. With young people having borne the brunt of two of the most globally traumatic events in recent history – the Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic – they deserve to have the skills they need to create that future. 

This picture poses two key challenges for universities which are under increasing regulatory and market pressure to prepare their graduates for successful careers, not least to improve repayment rates to student loans and reduce the taxpayer burden for higher education. 

The first challenge is how to improve the content and currency of careers education as well as information, advice and guidance. Most university graduates, intent on a professional career in law, consultancy, financial services, accountancy or the civil service, will have a well-defined route to employment, given that these professions are well served by established graduate employers. Others studying and graduating into large public sector employment (healthcare, teaching, social work, policing or the prison service) also have a relatively clearly mapped route into the workforce. But for those who – by choice or necessity – take a different path, the scaling and information efficiencies of big graduate and public sector recruiters don’t apply. Many will want and need to graduate with the knowledge and skills to understand the dynamics of smaller, entrepreneurial or start-up employers as well as having the confidence to navigate the flexible workforce.

The second challenge concerns curriculum. If people will need to be regularly reskilled, might the disciplinary silos that characterise today’s higher education landscape in the UK also need rethinking? It is becoming increasingly critical to teach foundational skills that will enable constant adaptation to the changing environment: learning how to learn (metalearning), critical thinking, communication, design thinking and innovation will all be crucial to success. Higher education institutions should be ready to prioritise interdisciplinary thinking, present the opportunity for real-world learning and encourage an attitude of lifelong education.

Meanwhile, newly mainstream consciousness and concern about the environment, social impact and diversity and inclusion is being reflected in universities’ strategic planning – but perhaps there’s room also for cross-cutting curriculum in these areas to equip graduates with a 21st century compass for navigating the controversies that will chart their daily lives. The London Interdisciplinary School is pioneering a model that centres on problem-based learning. Real world challenges such as income inequity, the risk of natural disasters and climate change are used as the framework for the degree.

Other skills which are universally accepted as critical for the 21st century economy, such as digital skills, data science, coding and AI are only available in highly specialised courses, even though most professional and managerial roles need a working knowledge of these areas in a wide range of sectors and markets. Yet there is currently no pathway that gets young people reliably and at scale from school through university and into the workplace with even basic knowledge in these areas. It’s hardly surprising that coding boot camps and bolt-on credentials for common software applications (think Salesforce, Tableau, Xero and the like) are rising in popularity – but these could easily be integrated with and delivered as part of most undergraduate programmes with huge benefits to both universities and their graduates. The RISE programme at Manchester Metropolitan University is a good example.

There is of course a case for a more fundamental rethink of our whole education system from primary through to tertiary and beyond. Such a reform would, however, take decades to agree and implement and that will simply be too late for today’s young people.  

In the way of most successful transformations, universities need a new vision for the successful graduate of the 21st century and a roadmap for rapid, incremental changes. Minimum viable transformations, delivered early and often, seems the appropriate strategy.   

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