Special Report
Future of Work

Top U.S. Companies: These Are the Skills Students Need in a Post-Pandemic World

By Mark Lieberman — March 02, 2021 17 min read
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The future of work looks quite a bit different now than it did a year ago. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to confound even the most accomplished futurists’ efforts to make predictions about what lies ahead.

Even with that lingering ambiguity, companies have already begun shifting their priorities and rethinking their expectations for the next generation of employees, who will enter the workforce having experienced all manner of unforeseen shifts in the work people are doing and the techniques for doing it well.

In a survey conducted in January by the EdWeek Research Center, 55 percent of high school teachers, principals, and district leaders said their students’ interest in health care jobs has increased during the pandemic, and 57 percent said the same about jobs in information technology.

The question is what should be done at the local, state, and federal level to support and enable schools to develop students—especially those from poor communities—to enter the workplace with the skills to be successful in the workplace of the future.

Education Week surveyed executives at some of the nation’s leading companies in those industries and several others: hospitality, automotive, and consulting.

Our prompt: Tell us what you’ll want and expect from today’s K-12 students when you’re eventually hiring them, and make suggestions for how schools can provide students with those skills.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Sysco

Michael Fischer, vice president of global talent management

The environment in which organizations operate, and serve their customers and communities, is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—known in the business world as VUCA. In order to thrive in these conditions, companies like Sysco will need future associates with a set of skills and capabilities that are fit for this type of dynamic situation.  Schools can help by developing students with these capability areas:

  • Agility and Flexibility: Ability to sense unpredictability and act quickly in response; ability to identify new ideas and approaches. Successful associates need to demonstrate curiosity—ask questions and have the courage to move quickly.
  • Growth Mindset and Resilience: Desire to continuously learn, and the ability to recover and bounce back from adversity and hardships; building strength and a greater ability to cope. Take ownership and accountability for your situation, develop strategies for reflection and learning.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: Desire to work with others different from yourself—different backgrounds, genders, functions, geographies, cultures—to create better, more durable results; and the ability to work as a member of a team to achieve an agreed set of goals.
  • Learn to Learn: The world is changing fast, and successful companies are evolving even faster to serve their customers and remain competitive. Associates with the ability to identify and anticipate changes in the environment and who can acquire new knowledge and skills will be needed and effective in this environment.

In my mind, the question is what should be done at the local, state, and federal level to support and enable schools to develop students—especially those from poor communities—to enter the workplace with the skills to be successful in the workplace of the future. For example:

  • Start early!  Schools should provide quality, universal pre-K education that is consistent for all children across all schools. This is a primary determinant of school success for students.
  • Schools deserve equitable funding, especially those in underserved and marginalized communities (typically brown and Black communities) which often lack proper funding.
  • Ensure every child can read before 3rd grade, another key determinant of long-term success in school and beyond.

McKinsey

Dirk Schmautzer, education practice partner

One of the many trends that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated is rapidly digitizing and automating workplaces. We see strong evidence that digitization and automation increases the demand for technological skills, as well as for social and emotional skills. While the increase in technological skills is obvious, the increase in social and emotional skills is driven by the fact that related activities are more difficult to automate. Therefore, it becomes more important for workers to carry them out competently.

Examples of social and emotional skills include effective teamwork and relationship building. Both skill sets can be developed by refocusing some elements in the K-12 system. For example, to prepare students for the effective teamwork they will need in the workforce, schools can focus on teaching coaching, collaboration, motivating different personalities, fostering inclusiveness, and resolving conflict.

Microsoft

Mark Sparvell, director of marketing education

One thing 2020 highlighted was that the future is very hard to predict, which is challenging to concepts of “future ready” and “skills for the future.” What we do know is that this dramatic change in itself has provided a unique lens into how future generations can prepare for the unknown ahead.

McKinsey & Company asked global HR professionals about missing skills for an increasingly automated world. They identified problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity as being most needed, followed by the ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity.

When we examine how schools can best prepare students to effectively navigate uncertainty and the workforce, recent findings from the Education Endowment Fund in the UK may hold some promising answers. The Fund inquired into the qualities and skills possessed by students who had been successful during this time of remote learning, and identified these traits: critical thinking and creativity, cognitive flexibility (ability to deal with ambiguity and change), and self-regulation. These are a strikingly similar set of skills to the McKinsey & Company findings. It would appear that the skills that will have the greatest impact in the modern workplace are the same skill sets and mindsets required by students right now to navigate remote learning.

This similarity shows that student-centered approaches that intentionally release control of learning to learners, supported by technology that facilitates connection and collaboration both in schools and remote learning contexts, can support the development of skills and dispositions required to get a job, create a job, or keep a job in the future.

A one-size-fits-all approach won’t be the answer to future work models; employee preferences for the future are highly varied.

Delta

Ed Bastian, CEO

Education is one of the core pillars of Delta’s community involvement—we’re committed to advancing education equitably in our communities and helping to shape the lives of our future employees and customers. The pandemic has made it clear that innovative, global, and strategic thinking will be more important than ever to every skillset as the world moves into recovery and rebirth. Our educational institutions need to adapt to ensure our children can participate and compete on an increasingly connected world stage. To that end, Delta is proud to be partnering with Atlanta Public Schools and 3DE, which is helping to re-engineer public education to empower students to unlock greater economic opportunity in today’s global society. 3DE operates in seven U.S. cities, including our hometown of Atlanta, and provides real-world case studies to help students develop key skills for success throughout their lives.

Apple

Susan Prescott, vice president of worldwide developer relations and product marketing for enterprise & education

This year has been unprecedented. Teachers have worked tirelessly to ensure their students could continue learning, despite the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ve been inspired by their dedication to help students engage and build community, to have conversations about race and social justice, to build new skills in coding and embrace their innate creativity and curiosity.

As students look ahead to their future careers, coding continues to be a foundational skill that embodies creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving—all important proficiencies to bring into the workplace. Learning to code helps students build these skills and brings opportunities, no matter what career they pursue. This is why we’ve invested in creating free and comprehensive coding curriculum and professional learning for schools from elementary to higher education, and why we’ve partnered with educators across the country to ensure they have the tools to share these resources with their students.

We’ve seen firsthand how coding has transformed the global economy, creating entire new industries and supporting millions of jobs. The iOS app economy alone now supports more than 2.1 million jobs across all 50 states, helping to provide opportunities for Americans of all ages. We see this continuing to grow, creating boundless opportunities for today’s students.

Boston Consulting Group

Nithya Vaduganathan, managing director and partner

Renee Laverdiere, partner

Work and organizational models have remained mostly unchanged since the Industrial Revolution when people needed to work in close proximity to coordinate, collaborate, and co-create. Many companies used the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine how work gets done. In many industries and jobs, the pandemic proved many jobs can be done in a more hybrid and remote fashion—and made it even more clear where digital tools, data, and technology can help. However, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t be the answer to future work models; employee preferences for the future are highly varied.

In a global survey BCG conducted of 12,000 employees, 40 percent desire flexibility in when and where they work, but an almost equal portion of the workforce wants the structure of fixed time and place. Regardless of the model, being satisfied with social connectivity is critical: People who are satisfied are 3.2 times more likely to feel as or more productive than pre-COVID.

As a result, the worker of the future will need refined skills in managing their work, a broader range of communication styles, and the ability to manage a fragmented suite of collaboration tools and technologies. While many students in K-12 are getting learning opportunities in these skills with remote/hybrid learning, students need help developing a growth mindset, becoming more self-directed and disciplined, learning to prioritize, and overall more digital fluency.

To build a more resilient generation and future workforce, it’s critical that today’s students have the support they need—resources and personal skills—to continue to build that muscle.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Association

Kelly Williams, senior vice president and chief human resources officer

Sponsoring Take Our Daughters & Sons to Work Day has always been a highlight for me—from seeing and feeling the pride of Team BCBSA as they introduced their children to their colleagues to the joy and curiosity of their children as they explored our workplaces and the world of work with their parents.

Enter 2020 and what used to be an annual experience is now a daily immersion shaping all of us—children, parents, colleagues, employers. Yes, our ability to engage, adapt, and respond to change is important—further illuminated by the pandemic—and still self-awareness and personal well-being remain at the top of my development list.

In my experience, how well we know ourselves, combined with how well we take care of ourselves—at work and in life—influences everything. Which is why I’d love to see equanimity as a core competency in schools. At the heart of it, it’s about being versus doing. Being grounded. Being centered. Regardless of what’s happening. Like all skills, it requires practice. Just imagine the possibilities of an equanimity—based curriculum!

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield

Angela Celestin, executive vice president and chief human resources officer

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills of empathy, openness to continued growth, and being self-motivated as well as the ability to express oneself have become increasingly more important and need to be continually developed.

This pandemic has shown us the importance of emotional intelligence, especially empathy. Empathy is critical to the success of every person and team. Practicing empathy is the first step to unlocking the value of each other’s diversity. Empathy can be defined as the ability to vicariously experience someone else’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes—in other words, it’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Once you do that, then you can begin to fully appreciate and leverage diversity effectively.

Openness to continued growth and self-motivation will be key to being successful in the future. New jobs and careers are emerging every day and as they emerge there are new skills that need to be learned or adapted. Technology will continue to change how we work and will require us to constantly learn new skills or apply our current ones in a different context. This relates to the work that we do individually but even more importantly to the ways in which we work together.

The ability to express oneself is not just about writing the best paper or delivering the most effective presentation. It’s about understanding how to be vulnerable and honest in a variety of settings, whether virtual or in person, to develop trust and respect with others. At CareFirst, we strive to nurture belonging—One Company, One Team. We consciously seek to understand and practice empathy to instill a sense of community. To nurture belonging is to create an environment where every person feels like a member regardless of their experience, position, background or identity. In CareFirst’s inclusive work environment, it is important that each associate feels supported across the organization and feels a shared connection with their colleagues.

These things along with personal accountability combine to enable effective teamwork, which we will continue to need.

Schools play a critical role in developing the talent in future generations. The skills that children pick up early on from developing relationships with their teachers and each other will continue to be the foundational component to success. Teachers that offer nurturing environments and flexibility so that students feel comfortable bringing their whole self to school will be the most effective teachers in the future—producing the most engaged students.

Finally, classrooms that integrate technology and creativity effectively will provide students the opportunity to develop a passion for finding new ways to view the world and constantly learn.

Chrysler

Lottie Holland, director of talent acquisition, diversity, inclusion, and engagement

Our rapid transition to the virtual environment has accelerated the importance of communicating effectively through a host of mobile devices and digital platforms. Unlike in-person interactions, virtual environments inhibit reading and responding timely to many critical nonverbal cues.

Students today need to develop and refine skills to communicate clearly, concisely, and with intention in their work, client, and personal relationships, through courses focusing on presentation skills, effective writing, and more.

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Cigna

Dr. Stuart Lustig, senior medical director

There is an urgent need for our schools to focus on ways to build healthier and more resilient communities. This need has been accelerated by the global pandemic, which has further exposed significant health disparities that disproportionately impact underserved communities. As part of Cigna’s commitment to whole person health, we have been researching resilience, defined as our ability to quickly recover from challenges, to better understand its building blocks and how people can develop the skills to overcome adversity and ultimately thrive.

Our research unveils real costs that can be associated with low levels of resilience: For many students today, low resilience is connected to worse physical health, higher rates of stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth and poorer academic performance. In the workforce, low resilience is connected to lower engagement with colleagues, lower productivity and professional ambition, and higher turnover.

The data also shows that resilience is a skill that resides in every person from an early age. Resilience is at its highest levels in young children, yet as children grow into their teenage years, we start to see resilience levels fall sharply—by as much as 50 percent by the time young people reach ages 18-23. This resilience curve is alarming—not only is Gen Z the least resilient generation, but they are also the loneliest, according to our previous studies on loneliness.

However, resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened throughout a person’s life. To build a more resilient generation and future workforce, it’s critical that today’s students have the support they need—resources and personal skills—to continue to build that muscle. Teachers, coaches, and parents play a critical role by encouraging resilience-building factors: practicing good physical and mental health, staying active and practicing stress-reduction activities, building connections—through two-way conversation, mentorship, dialogue on difficult topics, fostering inclusivity and being surrounded by a diverse community. Our research shows all these things can help young people, and even adults, develop their resilience skill set.

Practicing empathy is the first step to unlocking the value of each other’s diversity.

General Motors

Telva McGruder, chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion

The past year has really underscored the importance of nurturing in our employees a balance of professional resilience and adaptability. The rate of change in many industries—including our automotive and technology environment—is moving at such a rapid pace that, even outside of the context of a global pandemic, we need our employees to remain nimble and persevere through whatever comes their way.

The ability to thrive in the face of monumental change, while maintaining some semblance of day-to-day stability both personally and professionally, requires muscle development that we often do not acknowledge until we’re faced with an adversity that demands those muscles. The pandemic absolutely called on each of us as individuals and as teams to focus on our ability to keep going amidst heightened ambiguity and uncertainty. There’s no doubt we are collectively going to need to keep these muscles in shape for the years to come.

Our schools excel at teaching students how to learn, with specific attention paid to common cycles of behavior (if x, then y). If we could expand this to accommodate more styles of learning and introduce to students the concept of learning agility as a core skill, it would help to harness the resilience and adaptability that so many children already have developed, for better or worse, especially those dealing with the challenges presented by resource scarcity.

Encouraging and nurturing the positive elements of resilience and adaptability—inner strength, the ability to bounce back after a failure, and the courage to try something new, for example, can go a long way to prepare a student for future success in the workplace. It is on us as educators and employers to help frame these skills—whether learned deliberately or because of one’s circumstances—and further develop the learning agility that these skills enable. We can and should uplift resilience and adaptability as skills for achievement in any work environment.

Hyatt

Malaika Myers, chief human resources officer

Hospitality is unique because it’s one of the few remaining industries where people can start in entry-level roles and build fulfilling, lifelong careers. When we welcome new colleagues, we are prepared to teach them the skills they need to be successful in their roles so in the hiring process, we’re really looking for soft skills.

At Hyatt, our purpose is to care for people so they can be their best and delivering on our purpose requires a strong level of empathy—understanding what our guests need in order to really care for them. To manage through the pandemic, we relied on collaboration, inclusion, and a mindset of experimentation to reimagine our business. These types of soft skills will be critically important for the workforce of the future.

Alongside fostering development of soft skills, schools should seek opportunities to connect students with real-life work experiences. Across our global Hyatt portfolio, we have found success in collaborating with community-based organizations to introduce young people to the hospitality industry and connect them with employment opportunities as part of our RiseHY hiring program. In our hometown of Chicago, we continue to build on our longstanding relationship with the Chicago Urban League to provide internships to high school students at our corporate office so they can gain real-world experience and explore opportunities in our industry.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as U.S. Companies: Key Job Skills Students Need Post-Pandemic

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