How to Prepare Generation Z for Jobs That Don’t Yet Exist

Schoolchildren listen to a teacher showing how to use a digital tablet in a primary school in Marseille, France. Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

According to some estimates, robots could replace 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. over the next 15 years. That means that if you’re a member of Generation Z, you’re probably preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist. And if they do, they’ll look and function in a significantly different way than they do today.

One thing is clear: there is an ever-widening gap between what Generation Z will need to know to be successful and what they are learning in the traditional classroom. Despite various initiatives to address knowledge gaps in both the current and future workforce, we’ve had a difficult time successfully addressing this issue.

So what is the best way to help Gen Z garner the skills they need to be successful in a potentially unknown career? According to a recent survey we conducted at Quizlet, nearly all (95 percent) of Gen Z is familiar with the future of work concept, but almost one in three women and one in four men report feeling unequipped to take on future career prospects. Students can’t be equipped for future jobs if they don’t understand the basics about innovative technologies that will be present in the future workplace (think robots, AI and self-driving cars). For example:

  •      Despite the prevalence of AI in the workplace, four in ten students have not learned about AI or machine learning in the classroom
  •      Nearly half of students aren’t learning about self-driving cars in the classroom, though almost 75 percent wish they were

It’s clear that students want to learn more about innovative technologies they know they’ll be using in the workforce, but classroom instruction hasn’t caught up with industry, for one reason or another. But even more worrisome is the disparate perception of job preparedness being reported by men versus women.

Address Unconscious Bias in the Classroom

Think about this for a minute: one-third of women do not feel prepared to take on future careers.

One reason that women may feel less prepared than men is the unconscious bias at play within the classroom. Unconscious bias is more often talked about in reference to the workplace, but it is just as prevalent in student settings. Studies (such as this one at FiveThirtyEight) have shown that teachers inadvertently pay more attention to boys than girls in the classroom, and it can happen as early as the first grade, where teachers will underrate the math skills of girls, even when boys and girls perform similarly.

The first step to getting around these implicit biases may sound cliché, or even too simple. But admitting that there’s a problem is the first thing we need to do in paving the way to proactively address the issue.

We’ve seen the workforce take more structured approaches to combating bias, including Project Include, launched by Ellen Pao and seven other influential women in tech, and unconscious bias trainings led by organizations like Paradigm. While Google’s 2014 diversity report revealed there’s work to be done on the diversity front, we can thank the company for setting an example of transparency that has inspired companies (many of whom are at the forefront of the “Future of Work”) to publish their own internal stats on a yearly basis. In the academic setting, we’ve seen studies that show bias exists, but fewer formal programs to address it. Teachers, starting in elementary school, need to understand how they, too, can impact how students think about their own ability when it comes to STEM.

So, how does addressing these unrealized biases prepare students—especially female students—for the future of work? By encouraging them and making the classroom a fair playing field. In doing so, female students will feel more confident in their ability to conquer STEM subjects, and if they feel positive about STEM, they’ll be less inclined to lose interest in it. What our kids learn today may be totally obsolete in as little as five years, so we need to keep Gen Z students engaged in the larger subject areas. That starts by developing a genuine interest. And an increase in desire for STEM subjects can only help educational institutions provide stronger, more rigorous and innovative training in these areas.

Strengthen the Evolving Soft Skill Set

Additionally, soft skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration will never go away—no matter how many robot “co-workers” we have in the next couple of decades. On top of these fundamental skills, it’s imperative that we also teach our future workforce how to seek out information and process it. There’s so much data available today that distilling information has become a vital skill—just like coding or graphic design. And it’s one that should be taught in school. In this era of “fake news” it can be challenging to discern fact from fiction; it’s imperative that Gen Z understands where to find accurate information and how to draw their own conclusions.

There are so many unknowns about what specifically the future of work will look like, but soft skills will always have a role to play. If you’re an amazing scientist, your work will be that much stronger if you can communicate your findings. Soft skills are arguably the most important thing that students will need to learn in the coming years, no matter what their future job might be.

Equip the Teachers: Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers

Even while we look to address the challenges in early STEM education, the problem of our existing workforce remains. In October, Google pledged $1 billion to help train Americans for jobs in technology. According to CEO Sundar Pichai, this money is meant to address the gap between the skills required by modern companies and the skills that are taught in schools.

This gap exists because technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it’s challenging to be able to teach it as part of a traditional curriculum. New research from SAM Labs uncovered that 78 percent of U.S. teachers feel they haven’t received the training they need to teach tech in the classroom. Like their Gen Z counterparts, Millennials and Gen Xers simply haven’t been given enough exposure to STEM topics to be able to keep pace with today’s workforce.

While President Trump’s recent $200 million commitment to coding and computer science in U.S. schools will help reinvigorate STEM education for students currently enrolled in traditional learning environments, it’s a real concern that teachers don’t have the training they need to level up. We need to instill this confidence in teachers through continued education like enrolling in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as well as encouraging the trend of unbundling learning, where teachers use open source online learning materials to create their own lesson plans.

Ultimately we can make assumptions about what the future of work will look like, but we can’t predict the reality. This makes it challenging to completely prepare today’s youth to tackle it head-on. However, in the absence of concrete information, we can equip Gen Z with the evergreen skills we know will always be necessary. One of the most important? Learning how to learn and continuing to foster a sense of inquiry in Gen Z. This will be equally as important teaching them about the technologies that we know will play some type of role in their future careers.

It’s up to teachers, and us, the current workforce, to set a precedent of ongoing learning so that incoming employees are agile and able to take on whatever is thrown their way.

Matthew is the CEO of Quizlet, a global consumer learning company whose mission is to help people practice and master whatever they are learning. He joined Quizlet after 12 years at Google, where he was most recently VP Product Management at YouTube. Prior to YouTube, he was on the founding team of Google Apps and lead product for Google Apps for Edu. Matt studied mechanical engineering at Cornell and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

How to Prepare Generation Z for Jobs That Don’t Yet Exist