The future of work: How colleges are preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow

"Preparing for the Upended World of Work" text with icons.

COVID-19 continues to present a series of challenges this year, severely disrupting the economy and decimating job roles in certain industries. Although the private and public sectors are working together to address the immediate issues triggered by the pandemic, there are long-term changes that will transform jobs and careers in even more profound ways.

Chief among these workplace changes is the emergence of cutting-edge technology, such as automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing as well as big data and analytics. These tools are already revolutionizing both the job market and the way we work. As a result, it is sparking a greater need for colleges and universities to review how they currently operate and rethink how they prepare students for their future careers.

The Adobe education team has partnered with colleges and universities to provide students with greater access to edtech tools, whether it’s in a hybrid, in-person or distance learning environment. In addition, we’ve pivoted our own organization’s internship and hiring programs to ensure that college students and recent graduates are prepared to work in remote environments.

Last month, Adobe sponsored a virtual webinar with The Chronicle of Higher Education called, “Preparing for the Upended World of Work,” the second installment of a two-part webinar series that examined the future of work and how colleges can prepare for this change. Below are a few key highlights from the discussion with keynote speakers and panelists:

The post-pandemic workplace

The pace of technological change continues to raise concern among American workers – many fear that technology advancement will outpace the rate of new roles being created, which will likely cause the job market to grow even more competitive. As a result, there is an increased demand from students and their parents for colleges to help prepare learners for the future workforce by teaching soft or “durable” skills, such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. These are skills that leading industries seek in talent and can’t be replaced by automation as the workplace continues to evolve.

In fact, 62 percent of hiring managers believe these skills are more important now than before the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which shows how colleges and universities should rethink their academic programs, in response to hiring demands from leading companies.

There is a widening gap between the preparation provided by institutions and the rapidly changing job market. With tuition costs and COVID cases on the rise, the return on investment of a college degree is a critical factor for students considering a higher education more than ever. Conversely, the value of a degree has been overlooked by colleges and universities for far too long, according to keynote speaker Jamie Merisotis, president, Lumina Foundation, and author of “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

“I think that training that’s devoid of broader learning or education devoid of preparation for work isn’t going to give people what they need,” Merisotis said. “I think we’ve got to get past this dichotomy of ‘there’s education over here’ and ‘there’s training over there.’”

Merisotis advocated that colleges need to re-evaluate their current teaching practices to ensure that students can build the foundational skills in the classroom setting, which are necessary for success in a rapidly changing employment environment.

Digital literacy and creative skills prepare students for their future careers

When it comes to designing innovative courses that drive student success, colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are leading the way while others have been slow to evolve their curricula. In their session, “The Graduate 2021: How Digital Literacy, Creativity, and Agility Prepare Students for Any Job Market,” Todd Taylor, an Adobe pedagogical evangelist and the Eliason Distinguished Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, and senior Valentina Arismendi, spoke about how honing digital literacy and creative skills were integral to her academic and professional success.

In her first-year writing course, Arismendi learned how to tell a story using five modalities (i.e., mobile app, podcast, website, film and magazine), which enabled her to build digital literacy—the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information—and ultimately prepared for her future projects. The following summer she received a grant through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Burch Fellowship to develop a multimedia project in Los Angeles with The Immigrant Story, a nonprofit organization dedicated to telling immigrant stories. For her project, she explored the challenges that Venezuelan immigrants faced when starting their own small businesses. Arismendi discussed how she successfully applied the skills she learned in the classroom to identify gaps in her storytelling and make her final product more impactful.

Through showcasing these critical skill sets, she successfully landed a summer internship at Adobe, where she supported the education team’s product marketing efforts. But like many students adjusting to remote learning environments this year, Arismendi did not work in-person. She underscored how digital literacy and creative skills, such as collaboration and communication, can still be acquired even in a distance setting. This was especially the case when she was tasked with spotlighting customer and student success stories for the Adobe Blog.

Arismendi credits her success to that freshman year writing course, where she developed the foundational digital literacy skills that would inspire her to pursue a career in visual storytelling. That passion paid off – upon graduating in June, she will be hired to a full-time position at Adobe on the education team.

How colleges are adapting their career resources for Gen Z students

During the panel, “What Is the New Career Course?” Farouk Dey, vice provost for integrated learning and life design, Johns Hopkins University, and Elaine Meyer-Lee, provost, Goucher College, spoke about the unique ways their respective institutions are providing all students with greater access to career resources.

“We’ve created five industry-based career communities, which provides a home for students to do this kind of exploration and connect with those who share their interests,” Meyer-Lee said. “And we try to meet students where they are and when they’re ready. For example, we provide Instagram Live events where students can hear from employers or alumni, or deep dives on an internship or a job search during the [holiday] breaks when they have more time.”

Dey explained that Johns Hopkins University took a similar approach to Goucher College by enhancing its digital platforms to reach Gen Z students. The university moved away from hiring career advisors, counselors and coaches, and instead tapped content creators to turn its Advising Center website into a more engaging and interactive resource where students can access career information anytime, anywhere.

“We did not want to just achieve career outcomes for students,” Dey said. “We wanted to make sure that there is no gap.”

As colleges and universities make headway in restructuring their curricula and career resources, there’s much more work to be done to prepare students for future jobs. With students reevaluating higher education and the value of a college degree, faculty and administrators must embrace technology and adopt new modalities to ensure a bright future for the workforce of tomorrow.

Be sure to keep an eye out for updates from Adobe on upcoming webinars with The Chronicle of Higher Education.