Surya Kant January 13, 2017

The skills you need to succeed in the digital economy, and how to get them

A classroom in a suitcase equipping remote parts of the world with the tools of education. A digital library made up of over 30,000 books in 43 languages across 63 countries, tackling illiteracy head on. And a hybrid wifi router and mobile modem, ensuring those with unreliable connectivity and negligible infrastructure stay connected for longer.

MobiStation, Worldreader and BRCK are all fantastic examples of technology as a force for good, educating and preparing the workforce of tomorrow. Yet technology delivers uncertainty too, in the form of changing work and education landscapes.

What we know is that the jobs of tomorrow won’t map directly to the roles, skillsets and industries we know today. And as the digital economy becomes more pervasive – accounting for 15% of global productivity in 2005 and expected to reach 25% by 2025 – so the obligation of business and political leaders will come into sharper focus. It is, in short, our task to equip the next generation workforce with the right skills and mindset to succeed.

In less than 10 years, three quarters of the global labour market will be made up of millennials and those that follow (12-18 year-olds, the so-called Generation Z). Both generations must be given the tools, education and infrastructure that will enable them to drive our economies forward. It is their challenge and our obligation. It’s what responsive and responsible leadership looks like.

Cross-sector skills

When thinking about skills, surely the best place to start is with STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. For too many, a STEM education is beyond their reach, sometimes for cultural reasons, often for economic reasons. Yet with enough organizations focused on engaging with underserved communities in developed and developing nations, we can certainly make a lasting impact.

For example, in the US, a huge percentage of the fastest growing occupations require STEM or advanced Computer Science (CS) skills. And according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 1.4 million jobs created by 2020 that require CS and programming skills. However, there will only be 400,000 expected college graduates with the needed CS skills to fill those jobs, despite CS roles being some of the highest salaried positions for new graduates.


Image: Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum

At TCS, we run a global programme to support young people learning STEM subjects across the world. In the last six years, the programme has touched the lives of 2.16 million young people globally.

This includes a dedicated mentorship drive to address the education challenges head on, such as the Million Women Mentors initiative in the US, which recently surpassed one million mentoring relationships for girls and young women around the globe. An important milestone, considering that only a quarter (26%) of the STEM workforce are currently female.

We’ve joined the US2020 mentoring platform, which is partly spurred by a White House directive to help place STEM volunteers into organisations so they can help prepare students for STEM careers.

We know other business leaders are running similar projects, but we must not rest on our laurels. More work is required. To succeed, we need a comprehensive cross sector effort to create viable and highly scalable STEM education pathways, among public and private companies, non-profits, educators, and legislators.

Embracing a social toolset

While it’s critical to provide the foundational CS skills to tomorrow’s workforce, it’s also important to understand what the coming generation uses and expects.

In an unprecedented piece of research into the attitudes of Generation Direct – those 18-29 year olds that have come of age as digital natives – we discovered just how essential social media has become. Half of this group has already used a social network to lobby for change, while 62% use it to expand networks of business contacts and 42% of young entrepreneurs believe that skills learned online make them more marketable in other industries.

As we noted in the introduction to that report, just as the motorcar delivered freedom of mobility to generations of teenagers in the 1960s, today’s social networks offer a new generation a different type of freedom – the freedom to act, participate and drive their professional futures.

Social media is more than just another channel. For the coming generations, it has become embedded into their lives.

Shifting the mindset

Preparing the next generation is about mindset, too. There are parts of the world that have the technical skills, but lack softer professional and social skills, while other regions boast a strong professional experience, but often lag behind when it comes to technical ability. What’s needed is an equitable transfer of knowledge, know-how and approach.

Mindset cuts both ways, of course. Just as it is our responsibility to arm the coming generations with the soft skills they require to thrive in the digital economy, so it is incumbent on leaders to reflect the needs of the future workforce by reimagining the workplace – and in many cases, the classrooms that come beforehand.

Expectations are changing. Our research shows that an overwhelming 83% of India’s Generation Z view the smartphone as their most coveted electronic gadget. This is the generation that also expects anytime, anywhere learning, a do-it-yourself and collaborative approach to knowledge that includes video chat and tutorials.

Leaders should not ignore these signals and instead build workplaces where training is continuous, rather than sporadic, where tasks are project-based and collaborative rather than departmental and siloed, and where tools are embedded into everyday life.

According to the European Commission, the digital economy is “the single most important driver of innovation, competitiveness and growth”. Giving people the tools to help them thrive in the digital economy is certainly part of the answer. But a well-conceived skills and training agenda, a reimagining of the workplace and a change of mindset are essential, too.

Today, there are 2.5 billion internet users worldwide and 2.3 billion people active on social media. Given the exceptional adoption rates of smartphones, it won’t be long before the number of internet users exceeds 3.7 billion, over half the world’s population. The numbers are dizzying but it is a reminder of the digitally excluded. We must take them with us on our journey.

 

Surya Kant is President of North America, UK & Europe, at Tata Consultancy Services

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