Future of work – let’s make sure the bridge stays up before arguing about what colour it should be

xkcd-tasksA report just released talks about the skills today’s kids will need in tomorrow’s job market. It points to some good stuff but it fails to support one major issue.

The report’s core thesis is that in addition to digital skills people will need entrepreneurial and soft people skills in tomorrow’s job market. To a large degree this is both nothing new and nothing to disagree with. I do believe that the most successful people combine good domain knowledge with the people skills to be able to work with others and to be able to communicate their ideas. That I agree with.

Here’s what I don’t agree with. The first thing is that characterising all the current workers in STEM industries as introverted nerds is ridiculous. Successful people today have the same soft people skills that will be needed tomorrow. The important difference is that they also have an underlying deep domain knowledge.

The corollary of the idea that today’s workplace is full of introverted nerds is that we need something different for tomorrow. The report suggests adding more stuff into teaching STEM:

Many are calling for the integration of enterprise and entrepreneurialism skills into schools and universities. This could expand the investment in science and technology engineering and maths (STEM) to encompass entrepreneurship, art and design – expanding STEM to STEAMED. This reveals the growing value of soft skills in additional to technical proficiency.

Soft skills are needed but they are the icing on the cake. Soft skills turn a competent practitioner into a success. But we still vitally need those underlying competencies. More and more there are people who can talk-the-talk, who can present a good facade, but who can’t actually do the underlying work.

Sure, there’s a degree to which it doesn’t matter if you’re more focused on pitching than on coding in a world obsessed by start-ups. But someone needs to build bridges that stay up, to upgrade the back-of-house banking systems, to keep a server farm humming along under load. And when we don’t have competent people who understand boring nitty-gritty things we get debacles like the recent census where in the welter of huge contracts and consultants in good suits no one thought to try just turning the router off and on again.

Really this comes back to one of my core mantras. Let’s get STEM education right before we start adding in a bunch of other stuff on top. We are a long, long way from getting STEM right. The recent HSC participation rates show rapidly declining numbers doing serious maths or any physics or chemistry. The computer science elements in the current curriculum are out-dated and inappropriate and the new national curriculum is holding out little-to-no hope of improvement according to many involved in its creation. We have a problem that we are not fixing, and adding in other stuff is not going to help.

This continual focus on adding soft skills to STEM is really an allegory for the underlying issue. We seem to be incapable of making the hard decisions necessary to fix issues with our education system and with STEM education in particular. So instead of buckling down and doing the hard, boring, detailed work necessary to fix it – we run around talking about adding in easier stuff and making it more pretty.

Let’s design a bridge that won’t collapse before we start discussing what colour to paint it. Not everything in life is easy.

Image: XKCD.

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