Reading the Tea Leaves: Preparing Now for the Jobs That Don't Exist Yet

Shouldn't students learn specific skill sets that will set them up to grab the jobs available right now -- especially where there are gaps in the STEM-related fields? When we make this case to drive students to these particular fields of endeavor we forget four key things.
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Pretty young business woman using mobile phone outdoor
Pretty young business woman using mobile phone outdoor

Students starting college -- even while in high school -- when asked what they plan to do with their degrees or what they plan to major in generally respond with a very specific and affirmative answer that may be pre-med, or accounting, or pre-law or business. Then life goes on. The pre-med student discovers an aversion to blood, the pre-law student decides that law firms are boring, the accounting student hates math. And then over a lifetime of work bigger things can happen. Recessions happen. Relationships come and go. Industries rise and fall. Hurricanes devastate neighborhoods. Technologies are created and are replaced by newer technologies. While we worry that 10 percent of our population may be unemployed and that is tragic, 90 percent is still working and many have been working for decades. But they are rarely working in the same areas that they started in -- or that they majored in during college. How did those folks know how to read the tea leaves to stay in the game?

There is a debate about the value of college, and in particular the liberal arts. There is a push toward more vocational studies. Shouldn't students learn specific skill sets that will set them up to grab the jobs available right now -- especially where there are gaps in the technology, engineering, and other science related fields? When we make this case to drive students to these particular fields of endeavor we forget four key things.

One is that not everyone is equipped with or interested in those particular skill sets. I have granddaughters who do well in all their subjects including math and science, but who love language, the arts and theater. They have no desire ever to be bench scientists or accountants. But they will need at some point to use the tools of technology or accountancy to fulfill their specific goals along the way. However pushing students to become round pegs in square holes does not serve them well or lead to their success. Students have different learning styles, changing interests and varied aptitudes. A system that drives all in a particular direction is going to leave some out who have gifts to offer of their own.

Second, if you look at any industry -- even an accounting firm -- you will find people with many jobs. There will be those who manage human resources and training. There will be those who are support teams for executives as assistants. There will be those who do the sales and marketing. There may be a legal team. There may be an operations function. There is room in business for a wide range of talents and skills that have nothing to do with the primary purpose of the enterprise but will be essential to its well being. Thus there will be a need for a wide range of skill sets across and within industries -- communications skills, research skills, sales skills, math skills. Those skills can be derived from an English or History major, but more likely the skills are also honed on the job itself. Experience becomes the teacher and the classroom will be idiosyncratic within firms. None does things the same way. Therefore they seek smart students with the top grades who will learn fast on the job.

Third -- people change. What seems like a passion for one stage of life may not fit another as interests grow or bodies age or new horizons are discovered. Most people will have at least four jobs/careers over a lifetime. Some say as many as 15 with the lion's share in the first few years of work life when young people are still in self-discovery mode. The 40s mid-life moment seems to be another time when people seek change, and then late in life we may want to pursue that passion that has been lurking in our minds for decades. A good education allows for those shifts without going back to school every time unless the field requires it. (I did my own Ph.D at age 40.)

Finally, we can't read the tea leaves. Someone with a marketing major ten years ago would have not known that social media would totally change the paradigm for advertising and marketing. Who knows what is going on in some garage somewhere that will be the next game changer. Yet over time the colleges which graduated -- or inspired -- or provided resources to the game changers and leaders of today have taught basically the same subject areas for over 150 years. The bandwidth has widened to include more subjects and more areas are integrating but the model has worked in large part to deliver talent that can manifest the skills that have gotten us here.

This is not to say that the game should not change to accommodate new technological advances in pedagogy or reflect new ways of learning or meet the needs of more students entering the academy to get up to speed for the more demanding jobs of a knowledge based economy. But before we throw out the baby with the bath water should we question whether we can actually read the tea leaves.

So what is a student to do:
•Study hard and do really well in an area of interest.
•Check out the work world in internships, experiential programs, actual jobs, contact with others in the workplace, and reading about trends in industries.
•Build and be able to discuss and show wide ranging skills including communications, creative problem solving, research, human interaction, and time management.

And what is a college to do:
•Understand the importance of acknowledging the vocational pressures on student and help them to see how their college experience will get them there.
•Offer more opportunities early on for internships, service learning, and other experiential learning opportunities.
•Fully tap alumni resources to help students see the pathways they can take and to build their networks.

The future is about preparation and not speculation.

Visit to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book 'I Can Finish College.'

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