This article, first published in July 2021, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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As the digital transformation progresses faster and faster, our education systems are struggling to adapt and prepare young people for the future of work.
As shown by economic historian Carlota Perez in her seminal writings, general-purpose technologies transform business, the economy and society at large every half-century or so. Institutions are always the slowest to adapt. They’re also the most instrumental in spreading the newfound prosperity across society.
In today’s digitised economy, economic innovation and wealth creation increasingly depend on intangible goods—R&D, design, patents, management practices and software technologies such as artificial intelligence. This marks a paradigm shift in the “rules of the game” governing our production processes and labour markets. Policy-making and social change ought to take such a shift into account and build on the same factors: (ethical) data collection and processing, service personalisation, a virtuous cycle of feedback and iteration, and of course change-pursuing actions carried out at speed and scale.
Poliferie is an Italian NGO founded in 2017 to prepare students in disadvantaged areas for the future of work. Its mission builds on two assumptions. First, the aforementioned “rules of the game” apply to people as well: to thrive, students need to develop a “growth mindset”. They need to see their mistakes as opportunities to learn and recognise education as a lifelong endeavour. Second, as in many other countries, the Italian education system is still very rigid. Curricula take a theoretical approach to learning that leaves students unprepared for the soft skills-oriented labour market of today. The lack of direct bridges to the world of work thwarts social mobility, as internships and hands-on work experiences remain a privilege of the wealthy and the well-connected.
Poliferie targets 16-19 year olds and helps them find information on post-diploma opportunities (be it university, tertiary education or schemes for entering the labour market) and develop soft skills that they lack, and which are crucial for the world of work.
Through our workshops, we have fostered positive change in the mindset of students coming from low-income, low-education families and generally disadvantaged social backgrounds. Our evaluation questionnaires, which we ask students to complete before and after they attend Poliferie’s workshops, show higher levels of self-confidence and a more positive attitude towards the future in those students who are exposed to this kind of cross-cutting, soft skills-based curricula.
After four years of activity reaching almost 2,000 students across 24 cities, we have learnt some lessons on what the future of work and education holds for us.
First, a one-size-fits-all approach to providing information on learning and work opportunities has its limits. Quite often, students have very specific questions on career paths that would be best addressed by someone with the right background. As a consequence, 1-on-1 mentorships might be better placed to orient prospective high school graduates towards a well-thought-out choice of what to do after gaining a diploma.
Secondly, as digital natives, young people have an intuitive if rough understanding of many of the technological trends shaping education and the labour market. Building on first-hand experience and examples is the most effective way of teaching and passing on knowledge to students. Being used to abstract, theoretical lessons, they highly appreciate practical exercises and group activities, which also gives them the chance to interact with, and learn from each other.
Finally, recruiting volunteers in, and bringing external speakers to smaller towns and struggling regions is a significant challenge—students that need the most help tend to be concentrated in those areas. Remote learning, induced by COVID-19, has the advantage of enabling outstanding professionals to reach students practically everywhere. Though not a given, provided they have access to digital infrastructure and tools (like a smartphone and a broadband connection) today’s students have the possibility to access online learning opportunities that were unimaginable just a decade ago. On the other hand, building a trust-based relationship with them is clearly challenging with a lack of physical contact.
We have to keep on nurturing change in our education systems. Trial and error in pursuit of social innovation is the best way to do so. Luckily, the number of edtech startups and social impact organisations focused on learning is on the rise. There is a strong need for experimentation to find ways for all students to be equipped with the mindset, skills and information necessary to succeed in the digital age. The ultimate hope is that governments will then take advantage of these innovations and roll them out on a national scale. Everyone, no matter what their background is, should be able to enjoy the same opportunities and be ready to face the challenges posed by the future of work.