Preparing Students for Future Careers
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2018 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
If students can’t specifically define their career goals, don’t think they’re avoiding the question. They could just be more aware of the situation than anyone realizes.
Teachers have always tried to make their lessons relevant to the world outside the classroom. High school teachers especially have always been a “lighthouse to look out there and see what’s evolving,” says Ron Canuel, president and CEO of The Learning Partnership, an organization that helps prepare students for the workforce.
If that’s true, teachers are shining the light on an environment of constant change. Today’s students are inheriting a world of job disruption. According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum, more than 7 million jobs could be lost worldwide between 2015 and 2020. More and more, the jobs available are low-paying contracts, often without benefits and pensions. An aging population means people may work for longer, and need to be re-trained several times throughout the multiple careers they may have.
Granted, anxiety about the future is not new, but today’s students face many new challenges. More recent technologies, like 3D printing, cloud technology or devices connected to the Internet, drive many work and labour changes. Unprecedented amounts of information are now available instantaneously, causing information overload and social anxiety.
Gone are the days where students could assume specific education will lead to a specific job. “No one is going to pay these students for what they know anymore,” says Peter Cudmore, a high school teacher at Arnprior District High School in Arnprior, ON.
This means educators need to involve students in crafting class assignments and evaluation, says Michael Furdyk, co-founder of TakingITGlobal, an organization that helps educators use technology to help students respond to pressing social issues, like climate change and poverty. If students co-create what they experience in class, they’ll be more useful in the workforce. The business world is about outcomes. Employers ask for results, they don’t necessarily describe processes, says Furdyk. Students need to be taught to creatively solve problems and work together. Teachers can help by introducing them to current working conditions, teaching them technical skills and equipping them to engage with problems.
“Seeing is believing,” says Canuel. The Learning Partnership’s flagship program is the annual Take Our Kids to Work Day, where students visit workplaces across Canada. In recent years, the organization has incorporated virtual reality to help expose students to more opportunities. Teachers need to visit workplaces with their students, too, says Canuel. This way, they can see for themselves how offices and businesses have changed.
Teachers can also bring businesses to their classes.
Margot Arnold’s entrepreneurship class is one students rarely skip. It’s not because they’re motivated, though many are. It’s partly because they can earn money. For the past few years, her students at Weyburn Comprehensive School in Weyburn, SK, have run businesses as part of Junior Achievement Saskatchewan. Junior Achievement’s programs around the world prepare students for the workforce and connect students with volunteer mentors from local businesses. Arnold’s students create original businesses. They write business plans and develop compensation scales, create products, attend trade shows, and, donate 15 percent of their earnings to a local charity. Classes have made items like popcorn seasonings and mixes for baked goods. At the end of the semester, they deliver a final shareholders’ report and receive money based on the compensation they determined.
They also learn about the importance of personal values and teamwork. Each company must have a stated vision and values, an exercise that is informed by the students’ own personal values. They create executive teams. They make mistakes and learn to solve problems together.
Arnold wants students to understand the logistics of running a business—writing plans, attending formal meetings, engaging with customers—and the interpersonal skills like cultivating a hard work ethic and positive attitude. Employees can control these skills, regardless of their employer or workplace, she says.
Still, teachers need to make sure students are up-to-date about emerging technologies, like robotics.
Peter Cudmore has helped with his school’s FIRST Robotics team for eight years, and taught a robotics class for four. The club came first. So many students were engaged with it and creating such great work, that the administration thought they deserved school credit. Each year, students build robots based on the challenge developed by FIRST Robotics Canada. Industry mentors provide them with resources. The robots compete in sport-based events against robots developed by other teams.
“The joke is that we’re the only high school sport where everyone can go pro because there’s more jobs than there are people who are capable of filling it,” says Cudmore.
Even students with little interest in engineering or science participate. Some use their writing skills to create fundraising materials. Artistic students design team T-shirts.
The vast appeal of robotics doesn’t surprise Dennis Kambeitz, founder of robots.education, an organization that teaches robotics to elementary and secondary schools through presentations and camps. What does shock him is how many educators seem unaware of how much robotics is rapidly changing the workforce across industries. Kiosks have replaced counter staff at fast food restaurants. Drones are being tested to provide medical response to people who have had heart attacks. He has met fashion industry workers who list 3D printing as a top skill for their occupation.
“Anyone who is graduating from our high schools without robotics literacy is going to have a hard time finding a job,” says Kambeitz. Robotics, he says, isn’t just about building robots, or even artificial intelligence. Robotics is a literacy, a layer that will influence all parts of society and jobs, he says. Robotics will be in the future what computer technology is now—something that impacts every part of life and work, whether or not people are trained to exclusively work with them. As robotic applications become more common in workplaces, the most successful managers and workers will be those who understand how to use robotics well. Giving students the tools to understand, robotics will only increase what they bring to workplaces, he says.
But despite technological changes, the workplace will always contain people. Students must learn to work together, and not just on projects or products. Research bears this out. The same World Economic Forum report that predicts a staggering loss of jobs, also highlights the need for specialized sales representatives who can explain new products to potential buyers, and managers who are adept at leading organizations through rapid change.
Students need to learn that problem-solving involves working with people. At TakingITGlobal, Michael Furdyk and his team provide assistance to educators who use technology to help students tackle large social problems like climate change. The organization has recently partnered with the Canadian government through the Canada’s Service Corps to give grants to help students start organizations to make positive social change. Students don’t have to just use technology to make media giants like Facebook, says Furdyk. They can also create effective charities.
Perhaps the greatest problem students will encounter in the workplace is one the education system has helped create: fear of failure. The emphasis on differentiated learning hasn’t always helped students, says Cudmore. Learning opportunities that appealed to each students’ specific strengths and interests can contribute to a mindset where students believe they are only good at few things. They ignore their ability to learn new skills because they want to do what they’re good at. This doesn’t promote a growth mindset that learns from mistakes.
Perhaps the best way teachers can prepare students for the ambiguous, changing workforce is to engage with it themselves. Kambeitz says he can explain the importance of robotics in layman’s terms because he’s not a roboticist or an educator. He learned about the power of robotics when he had a production company making promotional videos about good vacation spots. Cudmore studied physics in university and some programming—but nothing with robotics. “All the skills I have, I didn’t have eight years ago,” he says, noting he constantly needs to learn: in his time with the robotics club, he has used five different motor controllers. Even his students who pursue robotics after graduation will likely have to learn new technologies and that is why he doesn’t think focusing on one specific tool or program is helpful. “Learning a specific language isn’t what’s useful,” he says. “It’s learning what it means and what problems you can solve with it.”
Even teachers whose own career paths seem straightforward have adapted their roles. Margot Arnold has always loved business and teaching, so teaching students about business seemed a natural fit. But she used to teach her entrepreneurship class with a textbook and had students make hypothetical business plans, not run actual businesses. Implementing the Junior Achievement program meant she had to learn to step back and guide her students through solving problems instead of handing them the answers.
Arnold begins each semester by having students list their goals so they can see how they change during the course. “You shouldn’t be the same person you walked in at the beginning of the semester as you are walking out,” she says. The same could be said of teachers.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.