Employability skills – where is wisdom? (UK)

When preparing students for an uncertain future, universities need to add wisdom to the list of skills they develop in them, says Steven Schwartz.

In April, as David Docherty reports, the Australian government released its report Skills for all Australians. The report is the basis for the country’s A$1.75bn (£1m) plan to reform vocational education and training. Reflecting the title, its 88 pages are crammed with references to skills: how, where and why to get them, and why both the individual and the country will benefit from having a more skilled workforce. The focus is on the acquisition of technical and practical skills in an economy “facing major generational change driven by the Asian century, new technology, and the shift to a low carbon economy”.

Each year, it says, 300,000 businesses close down and another 300,000 start up. Annually, around 1 million workers change jobs, with a quarter of those also changing industries.

New and innovative industries, including renewable and efficient energy, information technologies and the electronic arts and communications “are also driving the need for a new generation of highly skilled technically qualified workers”.

The report is more about how vocational education and training (VET) is funded than about what specific skills students ought to learn. This is probably because the government does not know exactly what skills students will need in the future – how could it when change is so rapid? Still, it is possible to extract from the report some generic skills that will apply not just to VET students, but also to our university graduates who find themselves in a continuously shifting, changing, increasingly technological economy.

So what are the skills everyone should possess?

First up, future employees will find themselves in an economy buffeted by global economic forces and constant technological innovation. All employees, the report says, will be subject to the demands of new systems and technologies. Jobs will be created which do not exist now and existing jobs will require new skills, and there will be a need “to combine new operational skills with communication … teamwork and decision-making skills will intensify [and] the flexibility and resilience to change jobs, apply skills in different context and go on learning will be essential.”

As economic change continues, workers will need not only specialist skills, but also: “An ability to quickly adapt and pick up new skills, to make the most of new opportunities.” An aptitude for continuous learning will be vital: “Australian businesses will need the capacity to embrace technological and business process innovations … It is becoming more important than ever for business to upskill or retrain their workers in order to lift productivity and to adapt to changing competitive pressures.”

So we can boil this down to a few vital attributes. Graduates ought to be:

• flexible

• resilient

• adaptable

• team players

• technologically savvy

• able to apply skills in different contexts

• life-long learners

• able to make the most of new opportunities

It’s a good list, but there’s another attribute I would add – wisdom. Many young people imagine wisdom to be an impediment, stopping them from taking chances. Instead I think that what wisdom gives is the ability to get more out of your experience than you would otherwise. It is a combination of having read widely and merging that with the experiences you have as you go through life. If the point of the university is to prepare students to learn from their experiences, then wisdom is a key characteristic we have to develop in our students as they seek employment.

Macquarie University has adapted its curriculum to ensure our students are exposed to a broad education so that when they graduate they are the adaptable, flexible, responsive, team-focused and wise people employers are demanding.

That’s my assessment. Are there other skills that all graduates should possess?

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia

Source: Guardian Education  http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/02/wisdom-as-an-employability-skill