Equipping the workforce of the future

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Gillian Murray

It is crucial for governments, businesses and universities to come together to equip the workforce of the future, says Heriot-Watt's Gillian Murray

As the adoption of technology rapidly accelerates, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that nearly 50 per cent of the workforce will require reskilling by 2025.

“There is so much evidence that as we move towards the technologies of the future and try to the solve the challenges of net-zero in the future, we will need a huge number of skilled people,” says Gillian Murray, deputy principal of business and enterprise at Heriot-Watt University.

For Murray, the challenge goes beyond identifying which skill will be more in demand in the coming decade. It is also about preparing universities to work with businesses and governments to equip themselves for the future.

“I see it as our role to be working with these partners, to look to the future and identify the industries [of interest],” she says. "If we want to move quickly and always be at the forefront of where the world is going, the alignment of skills and innovation is so critical. And universities can help bridge the gap.”

Digitalisation is expected to significantly impact demand for skills in the future. WEF estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs could have been displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines.

Even more jobs – 97 million – could emerge that are adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.

If we want to move quickly and always be at the forefront of where the world is going, the alignment of skills and innovation is so critical. And universities can help bridge the gap.

To better understand how digitalisation will transform sectors and industries, Murray and her team are turning to academic research about disruptors of the future.

“Artificial intelligence-powered robotics and energy are two of the areas that we predict will require a huge amount of high technology and high cognitive skills,” says Murray.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) occupations are estimated to double in the near future, and are also of interest from an inclusivity and diversity perspective. Studies by the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco) indicate that only 35 per cent of Stem students in higher education globally are women.

“To meet the growth needed in Stem, we really need to encourage women to go into science and engineering,” says Murray.

Another challenge is staying ahead of the curve when it comes to upskilling. Research shows that the half-life of most professional skills is five years, meaning that within five years those skills become half as valuable as when they were first acquired. For some technical skills, this can be even shorter.

Building power skills

Murray emphasises that to truly round off these skills, it is crucial to build capabilities in communication and interacting with customers.

“An article that I read referred to them as 'power skills', as in skills that power the business,” she says. “Going ahead, we expect to see a mix of interpersonal skills, technical skills and even resilience, which has come to light during the pandemic.”

As the Great Resignation phenomenon grips global economies, rethinking management systems and understanding trends around future skills has become more relevant.

Heriot-Watt is already undertaking efforts to inculcate these power skills in students. The university’s Fit-for-Future programme is a free-of-cost initiative offered to students transitioning from high school to university.

“We believe that resilience and purpose-led education is really critical for the future,” says Murray. “All our students in Malaysia have been involved in this and have developed impact statements around how they will change the world. We are rolling this out across all our campuses.”

Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh Business School (EBS) at the Dubai campus has formed a partnership with its marketing society to bring industry experts, students and academics together through various activities – including training, workshops, seminars and events – all focused on marketing in the region. The society is a global community of leading marketers from organisations such as eBay, McDonald’s, Visa, Mastercard, Snap Inc, TikTok, LinkedIn, Google, Bloomberg, CocaCola, Tesco, and IBM. The association between the two entities aims to enhance collaborative efforts that will support the young generation of marketers and help them learn from industry experts and veterans.

Another approach to education in the modern-day landscape is work-based learning, focusing on apprenticeships.

“It enables you to learn by doing and allows you to address the more tricky skills that you need,” says Murray.

To enable the shift in the way education is imparted, it is also necessary to change mindsets. Murray notes that this is where universities have an important role to play, especially with younger students.

“It is one of the critical points in the pipeline,” she says. “If you cannot get that pipeline correct, then you will struggle at all other stages. Interaction skills, collaboration – these are really important for the future.”

Honing entrepreneurial talents is another approach that Murray sees benefitting the workforce of the future. In 2020, Heriot-Watt launched its Future Made for Success programme, which includes a virtual enterprise development element with support from major corporates.

“We combined teaching the students about pitching, creating a business, entrepreneurial mindsets, with support from businesses that put forward their challenges for the students to solve,” explains Murray. “The more that we can do to bridge industry and students at all levels – rather than waiting until they graduate – the better equipped our future workforce will be.”