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Prioritizing the skills of the future

The fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming the way we work. Is our education system prepared to meet the needs of the changing times?
by Maha Kamal and Sauleha Kamal

The term Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has been coined by Dr. Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), to refer to technological changes at the intersection of the digital, physical and biological spheres. A Google Trends search of the term shows an increase in public interest, with the number of searches peaking worldwide in 2019.

Since the 4IR is set to transform the way we work, live and interact with one another, it’s safe to say that with its advent, the world is yet again at a crossroads. The issue is being taken up around the world, at the United Nations and WEF levels as well as at leading management consultancies. However, it does not feature prominently in our national discourse. This is especially troubling for a country with young people comprising about two-thirds of its population.

As automation changes the way we work, the skills needed for success at the workplace are also shifting. However, in Pakistan, our education system has yet to grasp these changing dynamics. There remains a wide gap between the skills of the future and the knowledge being imparted to students at the moment. Current curricula and pace of policy change are not evolving as fast as the nature of work.

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As lecturers at leading public and private universities, we routinely interact with, and guide young people as part of our work. In university classrooms across the country, students are being slowly introduced to the world of their future – big data, Internet of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence etc. Yet they are scarcely made to focus on the critical ‘human’ skills that will determine the paths of success in the 4IR. From a Pakistani perspective, the conversation on how this will shape the society we live in and its implications for our collective future is still a very nascent subject.

While there is a focus on the transfer of knowledge and what we colloquially call ‘hard’ skills, key so-called ‘soft’ skills for the future have been neglected. Soft skills are definitely not that cushy, and have in fact been increasingly linked to workplace success. There has even been a push to rename them ‘power skills’ (a term coined by Dartmouth College’s President Hanlon) because of the critical place they will hold in the future of work. In 2008, Google started Project Oxygen to find out what makes a good manager. While in the past, their hiring policies had looked for high technical expertise in STEM fields, Project Oxygen found that great managers ought to have key traits like a collaborative attitude, active listening skills, people management and strong decision-making.

Similarly, the key areas to focus our energies on at universities and higher education institutions in Pakistan should be critical thinking, complex problem solving, judgment and decision-making, emotional intelligence and people management – all covered in the top 10 skills for 2020 identified in the WEF’s “Towards a Reskilling Revolution: Industry-led Action for the Future of Work” report.

We are in an era of fast automation and artificial intelligence. As lines continue to blur between humans and machines, big data is changing the way we make decisions in business (such as insights through data analytics), in governments (“evidence informed” public policies) and in how we engage with the technology around us. However, contrary to what fear-mongering in the popular imagination suggests, robots will not replace all jobs. Rather, automation will change the nature of work. While some, such as Elon Musk, paint a bleak picture, saying that humans will soon be in trouble as “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot can’t do better”, this point-of-view does not capture the full picture. Indeed, economist Heidi Shierholz, who studies the labor market, forecasts a future that will look roughly the same in terms of employment and unemployment levels, albeit with a change in the nature of jobs available to humans. A new book—Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism—even takes a particularly optimistic view, imagining a future where humans can be liberated from work altogether. While that is something to consider as well, let’s take a step back for now and consider the panic around automation at the beginning of the last century. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the previous wave of automation only changed the way we worked (and indeed made certain tasks more efficient and easier) and created new jobs. We are experiencing similar changes at the moment. Today, there are lucrative jobs — including such things as social media management and Android application development — that were unheard of just two decades ago.

As automation matures, we are likely to see a demand for jobs that computers are unable to do successfully. This means an increased need for humans who can think critically and creatively, draw connections between seemingly unrelated things, and, really, be human. Artificial intelligence and better technologies, on the other hand, can make things better for everyone by executing the tasks that have suffered from human error. Remember, artificial intelligence is not quite the same as human intelligence.

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We, as humans, however will have to re-define what it means to be human, and develop critical expertise in understanding emotions, finding moral agency, developing creativity and introspecting on existential questions that define what a ‘good life’ is. More than ever before, we need to interpret ourselves, others around us, and reflect upon that to navigate future growth. Empathy will have to drive leadership and decisions. The good news is that these traits can be learned and developed. From a policy perspective, we will need to redefine how we understand and define education. The ‘university’ as we know it will need to develop greater fluidity more akin to Plato’s Academy with a focus on complex problem solving and dialectic – rather than didactic – ways of thinking. This will require a reimagining of higher education – with blended models of learning gaining greater traction and incorporating critical ‘power skills’ in learning outcomes of curricula. Departments in different fields will have to move away from their silos and develop systems thinking – working closely together in more interdisciplinary ways than ever before. Students will have to take ownership of their education pushing themselves towards unlearning and relearning at a pace faster than ever before.

Moreover, as a society, we will have to create avenues and incentivize life-long learning – leading to greater cognitive flexibility. The caveat is that in developing countries like Pakistan, our expertise on technical areas of the 4IR will not have the same rate of change as more advanced economies. The impact, though, will be global and the name itself demands a change—indeed, a revolution—in how we, as a society, prepare for our collective futures.

Maha Kamal is the co-founder of Solutions for a New Age (SAGE), a new initiative that aims to prepare young people for the future. She currently teaches development policy at Information Technology University. She was a Chevening Scholar at Queen Mary University of London where she studied International Public Policy.

Sauleha Kamal is the co-founder of SAGE. She has taught academic writing and communication at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She studied Criticism and Economic History at the University of Cambridge and completed her Bachelor’s from Barnard College of Columbia University.

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