"We need to question the question what do you want to be when you grow up and instead ask ourselves if it is the right question."
-Jan Owen AM. FutureSchools 2017
Disclosure: My attendance at FutureSchools 2017 is under a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
If you have missed any of the articles in the FutureSchools 2017 series, you can find them here.
I was intrigued by Jan Owen's abstract. In my experience as a primary school teacher thus far, entrepreneurship is not a common topic of discussion and so I was curious as to what I would hear that could be applied and considered through a primary education lens. Right away, Jan challenged commonly accepted norms by positing that we are asking the wrong question when we ask students what they want to be when they grow up as statistics and research demonstrate that no longer is it true that you leave school, enter a profession and then retire from that profession at the age of sixty-five.
Jan asked the audience to put their hand up if they are doing, now, the job they wanted to do when they were a child and there were only a few hands up in the audience (FYI, I wanted to be a truck driver). Today's youth will have, on average, seventeen different careers across five different industries across their working life, but that it will take them an average of four to five years to find full time work. Personally, at the age of thirty-three I have had eight careers across hospitality, industrial electrical, retail, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG), and finally, education. So asking our students and our children what they want to be when they grow up is no longer an appropriate question.
The statistics in the above image are genuinely frightening. As a society, we build up university as the pinnacle of education, the point of getting good grades throughout school. Yet I have it said regularly that a Masters degree is the new Bachelors. The pushing of more and more students to university actually results in the devaluing of a Bachelor degree, meaning that to stand out academically, a Masters degree is becoming the new requirement, with the ripple effect that student debt for graduates is starting at around about AUD$25 000. On top of that, we are staying at home longer because it takes so much longer to buy a house partially because of the increased relative price of housing, but partially because around thirty percent of people are un- or under-employed.
This can be seen in the increasing casualisation of the workforce and the use of short-term contracts. I am sure we are all familiar with the huge number of teachers employed only on a casual or temporary contract basis and the challenge that they face to gain permanent employment. I myself faced that which was partially why I have left the classroom. "Ask a law student who has graduated in the last four years, Jan continued, "if they have had a job and the majority of them will say not in law."
We need to stop asking our children what they want to be when they grow up and ask them what problems they want to solve because this then changes the discussion and changes the focus of their education from getting into a particular job but of solving problems, of learning to be agile learners and thinkers and it also takes the focus from the individual to the community and I am sure we have all heard an elder in our life bemoan the youth of today at some point. This change in focus will also help to disrupt the tertiary sector where sixty percent of students are studying for industries that will see themselves disrupted significantly by automation or movement of jobs to cheaper off-shore markets. Jan spoke of the research that the Foundation for Young Australians (@fya_org) has done which shows that one in three Australians are already in flexible employment arrangements and that one in ten jobs are done remotely.
Carl Scurr observed that the flexible economy is actually one of worry and insecurity rather than being the cool gig flexible work arrangements are often perceived as. Given that there are a significant number of jobs that are able to performed remotely thanks to the modern marvels of information communication and that there are 750 million twelve to twenty-six year old in the South East Asia region, many of which will perform the same job for a fraction of the wage, we need to be teaching our children how to create jobs and to manage their careers as much as how to read and write.
Jan spoke about there being seven clusters of jobs based around what they do for the community: generators, artisans, informers, carers, coordinators, technologists, and designers. The FYA report linked above indicates that careers that fall into the carer, informer and technologist brackets are in growth and will continue to be in growth.
We need to think about a life of learning rather than life-long learning, as that is what our children face and that rather than a piece of paper showing how well you answered a series of questions in a mandated national test, that a portfolio demonstrating what you are capable of and what you have learned is perhaps a better option. This concept received immediate virtual acclaim with a significant number of tweets encompassing this idea from Jan.
On the back of this, Jan put forward a concept which I think many of us were vaguely aware of from our own experience, but which I personally have not heard explicitly put forward, and that is the idea that our skills and knowledge are more transferable than we realise, with training for one job unlocking, on average, thirteen other jobs containing related skills (See Chapter One for a more detailed explanation, including a helpful visual graphic).
We were then given an indicator of the top skills that employers want, or rather the skills that employers want which have seen the most growth over the last three years. Digital Literacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the top skill, having grown in demand by 212% over three years. The next one was a surprise to me, but it does also make a lot of sense given our current population and our global region, but the demand for bilingualism has grown 181%. How many students do you know whom are studying a second language? My classroom was used for an after-school Mandarin language group one afternoon a week which consisted of five students. The third was critical thinking which has seen a 158% growth in demand and the final one was creativity which has seen a 65% increase.
Despite these four skill areas being those seeing the biggest growth in demand, the only one which really received any focus, from my perspective, is digital literacy. The foundation skills will never go away or stop being important; they are referred as foundation skills for a reason after all, yet we need to allow an opportunity for students to learn enterprise and career management skills in order for them to be properly prepared for their seventeen careers across five industries. There are particular skills embodied in career management which are needed to move across different careers and industries.
At this point Jan made an observation that I struggled to wrap my head around, which was that the FYA's research showed that if youth could demonstrate certain skills they (the employer) was willing to pay them more. Furthermore, a metric had been generated which attributed a dollar value of what this increase might look like.
The views of youth about higher education was the focus of the next phase of Jan's presentation and they were interesting. FYA research indicates that, and I hope I am remembering Jan's explanation here, 69% felt it was unaffordable, 60% wanted some sort of traineeship or apprenticeship but that it was unavailable for them. Jan commented that this figure is despite the fact that our trades are facing a startling shortage of entrants into them (I am not across this area so I would appreciate hearing from someone who is who might be able to comment on it. The only article I could find with a quick search was from 2013). Half of youth were uninspired by current jobs and 69% wanted to start their own business.
This figures present a challenge. I firmly believe that the common perception that a university degree is the natural progression from completing high school is invalid. Not only can you enter university as a mature-aged student as I did, but you can also enter any one of a vast array of other jobs both in trades (which are often more highly paid than some white-collar jobs) but a range of other areas. The ability of students in the senior years of high school to engage in a combination of academic studies through their school and a VET course through a local TAFE or other organisation is increasing and becoming more accepted.
The audience was asked how can we support and drive our students to want to succeed? Jan then mentioned High Tech High, where they have apparently removed all assessment yet their students are still performing as well as students from other high schools. I find this statement rather misleading. How do they know that their students are performing as well as those from schools around them if they are not assessing? They are clearly measuring something to make that judgement which means they have, in fact, not removed assessment at all and have merely changed the measure and not called it assessment.
The future of the career path is still uncertain in many respects. We know that we will have multiple careers, however, we do not know what they will look like. We know that many careers will be lost to automation, however, we can only guess at which ones. We suspect that by the time the youth of today are the age of their grandparents that life will be vastly different and there is unlikely to be a retirement pension, but we do not know for sure.
The future is not bleak, however. There is a world of opportunity available if you but have the tenacity to seek it out and the persistence and agility to adapt to the ever-changing vagaries of the job market your skill set is suited to. It was pointed out by @Edufolios that assessment allows us to know where the gaps are and where to grow, but that assessment does not have to continue to be the dirty word is currently seems to be, it does not have to be a mandated national test. We need a new mindset as we face a different future the audience was told, as that will allow us to transform our students with meaningful ways to learn and contribute to the future.
Jan's talk was interesting and energetic and she certainly had the crowd engaged. I think the FYA report is definitely something that I will find time to read in the coming days and she followed neatly on from Milton, albeit from a different perspective.
Thank you for reading and please leave your thoughts on Jan's presentation in the comments.