Skip to content

Rethinking education to make graduates – workers – future-proof

Women in Science
Three people work together to build a platform comprised of metal components and electrical wires.

Choosing to invest in the complicated task of evolving education to “future-proof” workers is smarter than trying to future-proof jobs.


For more than 30 years, my father taught algebra, physics, and astronomy at a small women’s college in rural Missouri. In that role, he advised students on classes and how to best prepare for the next stages of their lives.

I remember him telling the story of a student who was disgruntled about having to take a required math course – “When am I ever going to use the stuff in this math class?” My father replied, “I do not know when you will use it. But, if you do not know it, then I am sure you will never use it.”

I don’t know if he made up the story because I was asking similar questions about my math classes at the time, but I have always thought that he had a pretty good response.

But I think what the student was really asking is, “How is this content relevant for me?” There are an endless number of ways to apply knowledge – and you must know it to apply it, but you can also have knowledge with no way to apply it. To take this idea a step further, without knowing how to apply learning we are stuck with knowledge without purpose.

So, what is the right context for learning as technology changes work?

The greatest threat to workers today is not a robot, but another worker who knows how to work with robots and other technology – a worker who is adaptable and possesses the very human skills of communication, complex problem solving, and self-management.

This question is becoming increasingly important to students, parents, educators, and employers faced with a workforce in rapid technological transformation. Today’s students must be prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet, but also for jobs that exist now but will look drastically different. Specific duties and tasks will automate away more completely in the short-term than full jobs.

The greatest threat to workers today is not a robot, but another worker who knows how to work with robots and other technology – a worker who is adaptable and possesses the very human skills of communication, complex problem solving, and self-management. A recent survey finds that nearly half of working Americans (45%) report having a gig outside of their primary job – a reality for 43% of full-time workers. “Between the ever-changing nature of jobs and the stagnant wages in much of the past decade, young people have turned to side hustles to generate needed income and utilize skills and talents that are in demand,” said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate Chief Financial Analyst.

Evolving education can help future-proof workers if the curriculum matches the needs in the labor market. It’s a big, messy investment, but it’s better than trying to future-proof jobs.

The future of learning meets the future of work

The fact is, the workplace today, and in the future, requires creativity, not repetitive task completion – technology can handle that. There are estimates that as much as 50% of all jobs could be automated in the next decade or two. Yet, while there is good reason to believe that relative few jobs will be completely automated in the immediate future, some jobs will change. The key issue is how “routine” the work is. It’s not a high- versus low-wage or high- versus low-skill story, but rather, which parts of a job can be automated.

We might not know exactly what jobs and skills are needed for the jobs of the future, but we can get a good idea by looking at the present.

Top 10 skills workers will need in 2020

  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgement and decision making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive flexibility

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report identifies the top 10 skills that workers will need for the year 2020, and it looks like a list of the top skills needed to be an entrepreneur. Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity top the list. A recent national survey commissioned by the Kauffman Foundation also found that employers ranked communication, problem solving, time management, and self-management higher than subject-matter knowledge.

This is why rethinking education to cultivate entrepreneurial mindset, to provide Real World Learning experiences, and to acknowledge varied and alternative paths to success is crucial to produce graduates that are “career-ready.” This week, Kauffman will host Rethink Ed, which brings together students, parents, educators, employers, and other stakeholders to work together to ensure that all students have the skills needed for life and learning after high school and beyond.

The careers of the future – even the near-future – might look completely different from recent generations. And the path to success will be more entrepreneurial than the traditional path of recent generations. It’s futile to try to protect jobs from technology – jobs, job structures, the job market will change (and have already changed). Instead we must protect students from an education of the status quo.

More than half of adults, including parents, believe high school graduates are not “career-ready.” And while we might not know for certain what “career-ready” means for the workforce five, 10, 15, or 20 years into the future, the task to future-proof the next generation of workers – to make sure the education system is relevant to the demands of the labor market – is essential.

Because if we don’t prepare them for the future, they’ll never be ready for it.

This piece is part of the Foundation’s “Uncommon Voices” series, which features viewpoints from those working hard on issues that reduce racial inequity and support economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.