Work of the Future: Turning threat into opportunity

Mahamaya Navlakha writes about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what India needs to change, to turn it into an opportunity. 

Over the past couple of years we have seen an almost volcanic spurt of conversation and dialogue around the future of work. What do the skills and the jobs of the future look like? What do we need to do to prepare? How will technology impact our work ?

The questions are many, and while we may not yet have all the answers, one thing is for certain – the world of work as we know it is at the cusp of great change and we need to keep up. The opportunities for economic prosperity, societal transformation and individual growth are many. But these require bold moves by all stakeholders involved – government, businesses and individual employees – if we are to truly seize them.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report states that while companies expect automation will lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce, it is also expected that by 2022, emerging professions are set to increase their share of employment from 16% to 27%. So while there will be a reduction in some of the jobs as we know them today, there will be a whole new set of careers that will emerge. While we ought to be cautious when making conclusive statements,  in light of the fact that these estimates represent only a portion of the global employment data, it still indicates the direction and strategies to enable a smooth transition to the future world of work. The same report goes on to list some of the roles that are emerging and are in-demand:

* It is no surprise that there is increased demand for roles based on increased use of technology such as Data Analysts and Scientists, Software and App Developers, and E-commerce and Social Media Specialists

* Another category of jobs that is expected to show enhanced demand are those related to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, Robotics, Big data specialists

* Roles that depend on distinctively ‘human’ skills such as Customer service executives, Sales and marketing professionals, Organization Development consultants, learning and development specialists are also expected to grow

Looking at India specifically, 9% of the workforce is expected to be deployed in new jobs that do not exist today, while 37% will be employed in jobs with radically changed skill sets (Future of Jobs in India Report, 2018 Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, FICCI). Given India’s demographic context, with rising urbanization and migration coupled with an increasingly millennial dominated workforce, the importance of re-looking at strategies and processes for training and development cannot be overstated. Big innovations and rethinking in education and skilling systems are the need of the hour.

School Education and the Future of Work– The Gap

I was talking to a tenth-grader, studying in a public school in Delhi, about what he felt was the appropriate subject stream to choose in Class 11, careers that he was interested in and challenges he perceived in achieving these. I remember his words clearly, “I love mathematics and I am really good at it. My brother says that I should take commerce because there I will be able to study math.” He had a million questions for me: He wanted to know if commerce was the best bet for him, what other options were available, the kinds of jobs that were in demand, scholarship options and so on. I remember thinking that here was a bright young boy with so many questions, potential and no real guidance. This was only one such interaction. I can narrate interaction after interaction, with students in Class 9 and 10 where they are clueless about career options, work opportunities of the future, and how to plan a path towards their aspirations.

Lack of career awareness and guidance

The skills-jobs mismatch discussion is not a new one for India, where neglect at the K-12 level has been a matter of concern over the years. This mismatch becomes exceedingly glaring when we move away from the elite, private educational institutions to public schools and low-income private institutions. Students in the latter have little to no exposure to information or knowledge about what the future of work means and little guidance on the same. According to a 2019 survey report by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, 90 per cent of students from low-income backgrounds had never received career counselling. Those who had received some career counselling support believed that it had helped them understand career and course options.

Limited access to technology

Students from low income backgrounds are at a further disadvantage as a result of low access to computers and digital skills. There have been efforts by governments and civil society organisations to provide digital access to students in the form of computers and tablets but there is still a long way to go to provide millions of students the basic technology skills to meet growing demand for various forms of technology competency. And so despite being born in an era of digital natives, many are in fact digital aliens.

Limited exposure to emerging career options

Further exacerbating this lack of career guidance is an obsession with a few preferred professions. Almost two-thirds of the students we spoke to in 2018, through our programs at Arthan Foundation had career knowledge limited to a few commonly known career domains – medicine, law, teaching, engineering, and some vocational careers like salon services, tailoring/stitching, and electrical or plumbing services. Even within these there was hardly any understanding of what these professions entailed, the qualifications required, or the basic steps to approach them. More importantly there was no emphasis on exploring career options that matched their passions and interests. Students had practically no idea about the jobs of the future – AI, Robotics, Data Analytics, Machine Learning, Digital Marketing and the like and the lack of career counselling left them with only limited imagination for future paths.

Low focus on essential transferable skills

Another crucial area where India’s public school system has not seen nearly enough focus is that of essential transferable skills or 21st century skills. It is apparent that the 21st century jobs will not be confined to task-specific roles. Almost all studies and surveys around the skills required for the future of work have indicated the emerging demand for ‘human’ skills like – Critical thinking, Problem Solving, Creativity (on the cognitive side) and communication, emotional intelligence, leadership (on the socio-behavioural side). In most of our interactions with students across schools we found that there was no recognition of these skills and no systematic processes and pedagogy to help students develop these multidimensional skills.

The crucial need of the hour is to ensure that skills in schools, whether cognitive, technical or social-emotional are matched to what will be required in the job market of the future. We need to rethink education policies, curriculum and teaching methods to bring about systemic change. Career counselling and exposure to the vast array of career paths must be made available to the millions of students in our educational institutions.

The writing is on the wall – the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here and we have to broaden our imagination to transform ‘what is possible into what is real’.

Mahamaya Navlakha is a social development professional with 13 years of experience in creative content writing, curriculum development and working with youth. She is the co-founder of Arthan Foundation and leads its career planning and education program for government school students. She has previously led the media and advocacy program at ComMutiny – The Youth Collective (CYC). Prior to this, she worked with Going to School (GTS), where she created curriculum to teach 21st century entrepreneurial skills to children studying in government schools in Bihar. Mahamaya has a master’s degree in social development from University of Sussex (UK) and  a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Delhi. She is passionate about ideals of equality and inclusion.

Arthan Foundation is a Delhi-based non-profit organisation that prepares students for the future of work through its career planning and 21st century skills program. Arthan Foundation believes that empowering children with the right knowledge, information and 21st century skills to enable them to make informed career choices is critical to alleviating poverty in India. 

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