Celebrating human characteristics

Communication. Collaboration. Curiosity. Creativity.

Donald McLaughlin, of Skills Development Scotland, lists the skills which he thinks will be essential for young people in the future of work. A future, he says, in which there are jobs that have yet to be invented.

It’s a point which some educationists challenge, either on the grounds that there is no empirical evidence for the claim or that there is nothing new in the assertion; at various stages in history, industrial change has created roles that previously didn’t exist. Nonetheless, it is a view that is shared by such august bodies as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and the World Economic Forum.

In the latter’s 2016 report The Future of Jobs, it is said that: “A focus on the state of the talent pipeline for traditional formal qualifications and hard skills…risks dramatically understating the scale of impending skill set disruption if a large part of the existing subject knowledge of the current workforce will be outdated in just a few years.”

McLaughlin’s point is that while new specialisms are increasingly in demand – data science, for example – and it is vital that a sufficient number of people with those talents are entering the jobs market, a single ‘hard’ skill in itself is not enough. The people who do well, particularly when industries are being disrupted, are those that possess those ‘softer’ skills.

Conveniently for fans of alliteration, they all begin with C: “The future of work can be a scary prospect,” said McLaughlin, “particularly for parents wondering whatrapid change will mean for their children; how do you plan for careers that don’t yet exist? My answer is to focus on meta-skills; communication,collaboration, curiosity, creativity.” He adds critical and conceptual thinking to the list.

“Everyone is capable of these; it’s a case of how we draw those out in people and make them relevant as they upskill. We should celebrate human characteristics. With the current focus on artificial intelligence and robotics, it is clear there are many things computers do better than humans. But there will always be things that people can do better than computers.”

As chair of the digital skills group at SDS, McLaughlin helps lead implementation of the Scottish Government’s digital skills investment plan. It’s a tough ask; annually, there are around 13,000 vacancies in the digital technologies sector,yet only around 5,000 are entering the jobs market from traditional routes of university and apprenticeships.

“We’re not going to solve the challenge by generating a few hundred more graduates or just increasing the number of apprentices – important though those are,” said McLaughlin. “We need to challenge thinking, particularly within different business sectors. We need to look at how companies meet the skills gap they are facing. And one answer may be that their next generation of employees is their existing workforce – through reskilling and upskilling.”

While McLaughlin does not underestimate this “here and now” challenge, he believes it is equally if not more important to address the future talent pipeline which is where support for digital skills activities in schools comes into play. “The team has been running some cybersecurity live online sessions for schools, which have been incredibly successful.

“One example which, for me, really brought home their impact was a school in Granton-on-Spey which ran a ‘Cracking Cryptography’ session with Police Scotland and ATOS. After the session finished, the class insisted that their teacher schedule some extra-curricular activities around cyber and, in fact, it’s resulted in the whole class wanting to take NAT5 computing!

“I never thought I would use the term ‘Cyber in the Cairngorms’ and it’s great to see the kind of influence those initiatives can have. However, on a broader level, we need to recognise that meta skills and the ability to adapt will be key. The most successful workforces of the future will not be the strongest or the most intelligent, it will be those who are most adaptive to change. Darwin was right about that.”

Download a PDF of FutureScot Magazine in The Times Scotland 15.12.18.