The Holy Grail of Future Work

by Kelli Wells Kelli Wells is Executive Director for Education and Skills at the GE Foundation. 06.10.2016

NEW YORK – Understanding the future of work is difficult, if not impossible. According to the MacArthur Foundation, 65% of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.

As technology, globalization, and many other factors continue to redefine work, one constant will be the need for soft skills, or “skills for life.” Peer-to-peer deliberation, brainstorming, and collaboration are familiar to working professionals today, but we can’t assume that they come naturally, especially to the millions of students without access to proper training and college- and career-planning resources. In fact, a growing global skills gap suggests that many young workers are already falling behind.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US economy has 5.9 million job openings, while 7.8 million people remain unemployed. In Europe, 5.6 million young people are unemployed, while another two million are neither working nor in school.

As young people worldwide express their eagerness to work, many businesses say they struggle to find candidates with the appropriate qualifications for open positions. For example, one recent survey in East Africa found as many as 63% of recent graduates “lacking job market skills.”

This skills gap is extremely expensive. In China, it is estimated to cost the economy $250 billion annually. In the US, the annual cost is $160 billion, with companies losing $14,000 for every job unfilled for longer than three months, while taxpayers bear the cost of unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs. In the United Kingdom and Australia, respectively, the skills gap costs $29 billion and $6 billion per year.

When jobs are unfilled for too long, they are more likely to be permanently outsourced to countries with lower labor costs or a better-suited talent pool. This trend is now threatening traditionally stable economies; according to some estimates, by 2020 as many as 23 million workers in advanced economies will not have the right skills to be gainfully employed in meaningful careers.

Meanwhile, the myth that soft skills are innate – and that only technical skills can be taught – continues to fuel the skills gap. In reality, seemingly abstract traits like problem-solving ability, work ethic, and self-awareness can be developed in the right setting and with the right tools.

Many students cannot pinpoint exactly which skills they lack, but they are acutely aware that they lack self-esteem as a result. Consider Abi, a student from Boston who had difficulties in her home life and once believed she would never be successful. Simple mentoring and training programs carried out by College For Every Student (a nonprofit organization funded by the GE Foundation) taught her essential skills and boosted her confidence, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of personal development.

Indeed, the skills gap is even wider for young people from low-income households, who largely miss out on educational and job opportunities. Only 9% of people within this underprivileged demographic earn a college degree, whereas college is a prerequisite for most jobs in today’s economy. By 2018, over 60% of the 47 million job openings in the US will require some kind of post-secondary education. And in Europe, less than 25% of students feel they have received sufficient information on post-secondary education opportunities.

The skills gap and the opportunity gap go hand in hand. If we do not improve access to college-level education and career-ready skills training for youth from all economic groups, the skills gap will widen, and inequality will continue to worsen, with obvious implications for social and political stability.

Fortunately, the problem can be solved. Guaranteeing future economic health and stability in an era of unprecedented change requires, at a minimum, that we expand access to education and skills training for all future workforce participants – not just a select few.

Whatever approach we take must be collaborative and comprehensive, ensuring that young people learn the soft skills they will actually need for all future scenarios. With targeted funding and a shared strategic framework, governments, educators, and businesses can close the skills gap for the current crop of young people, and for generations yet to come.

Today’s young people are diverse, smart, and determined to tackle the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. Private and public institutions have a responsibility to teach today’s students how to prepare for those challenges.

With the right strategy, we can help millions of young people secure a place in the twenty-first-century economy. Every student developing soft skills today could potentially change the world for the better in the decades to come. That will be a future from which we will all benefit.


Kelli Wells is Executive Director for Education and Skills at the GE Foundation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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