We can’t prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet – and that’s okay

Seventeen different jobs. Five different industries. These are the latest numbers being bandied about as what my Year 11 students can expect their careers to look like.1 There’s more: the Foundation for Young Australians says that 70% of Australian school leavers will enter the workforce into a job that will soon become lost or automated.2  Although broader modelling suggests only 10% of occupations in OECD countries are at risk of automation in the next few decades.3 Early prophecies foreshadowed a disproportionate automation of low-skilled jobs. That was until the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence threatened the present reality of even the haughtiest professions.

So it seems that, as Nobel Laureate, Nils Bohr, pointed out: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

While working papers are piling high and infographics are being generated at a rate that even vague political rhetoric about ‘21st century skills’ has trouble keeping up with, the only certainty appears to be uncertainty.

When it comes to figuring out the future employment pathways of our students, all we seem to be able to agree upon is that we have no idea.

This leads to the questions that are increasingly being asked of systems, schools and teachers:

How can we prepare students to work in such a rapidly changing environment?

How can we prepare students for a career path that is so different to anything we’ve known since the industrial revolution?

How can we prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet?!

Well, we can’t. And, in my view, that’s darn good news!

Ever since my own school days, I have been constantly frustrated by the pressure placed on young people to gear their learning towards a particular professional pathway. Even now that I have found myself in a profession that I love and feel so passionately about, the prospect of staying in the one job for the rest of my days is, frankly, terrifying. And I like to think that runs deeper than my general fear of commitment.

After just two weeks into my first university degree I dropped out of the course. I found myself suddenly restricted in my study of Theatre and Communications. I know, I know – you were bracing yourself for one of those stories of the hard done by upper-middle class white kid who was pressured into a law degree and I couldn’t even deliver on that level of hardship. But despite having resisted the urgings of many a career counsellor to pursue law or medicine, I still found myself in a program where suddenly I didn’t have room to study History or French, two of my favourite subjects at school.

So I took a year off and came back to study a Bachelor of Arts. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I had the marks to get into many more prestigious courses or something with clearer links to a specific industry. And I had no real idea what the point of studying History and French would be. All I knew was that I enjoyed learning that stuff. It was interesting and hard and fun and it bent my brain in all different ways. And that was reason enough.

That’s what I want for my students.

I don’t like the concept of the kind of transactional relationship that is borne of the idea that I am in the classroom only to give my students the specific knowledge and skills that will relate directly to one particular role. And I like even less the consequent idea that anything else I might ask them to think about is superfluous and irrelevant.

Where I teach in the ACT, the secondary system is split in such a way that my students are asked to choose a tertiary or non-tertiary pathway at the age of 15. In far too many cases, this is a decision that is informed by perceptions of their existing academic ability rather than a genuine preference about further study. While there are instances where students at this age have identified a genuine passion to pursue a trade, for example, it is far more common that students are counselled into non-tertiary pathways because they have struggled to achieve high grades in the past.

This has far-reaching consequences in terms of their options, outlook and attitudes towards schooling. But this is only at the pointy end. Students are urged from as young as primary years to plan for their future careers and most of their years of schooling thus become a tool for reaching particular employment outcomes.

But what happens when employment outcomes become a blurry unknown – at a time like now?

Education gets to be about education.

Our role as teachers doesn’t need to be focused on creating tomorrow’s lawyers or accountants or landscape architects because no-one knows if those jobs will exist in 10 or 20 years’ time (and, even if they do, those occupations are unlikely to look like they do now).

Our role, more than ever, becomes about teaching students how to think and how to learn. Of course, ensuring students are employable is part of our purpose, but no longer does it need to be the central theme. The uncertainty – not only about what jobs and how many, but about what the nature of work might even be in the future – means we need to focus on educating students for all of life.

It’s impossible to prepare a student for a job that doesn’t exist yet. So we must instead prepare students to learn anything – and to be open to learning anything! We must work, of course, to develop students’ critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity and communication but we must also work to develop their resilience, flexibility, ability to collaborate and their drive to push themselves and explore new things.

As teachers, we can focus more than ever on cultivating a love of learning. This means that my work gets to become less about convincing that student that writing an essay on Pompeii really will have direct benefits to his intended future work as a bricklayer (though I like to think I have quite successfully drawn that bow in the past). Instead, it becomes more about getting students excited about learning just because learning can be interesting and hard and fun and it bends your brain in all different ways.

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/comment/australian-youth-are-not-prepared-for-the-future-workforce-20160501-gojiji.html

[2] http://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/fya-future-of-work-report-final-lr.pdf

[3] https://education.nsw.gov.au/media/exar/Future_Frontiers_discussion_paper.pdf

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