Get smart about skills today for tomorrow's jobs

Our future will require today's high school and college students to develop a unique skill-set never seen before. We must develop 21st century skills to prepare for tomorrow, says IBM's Kevin Faughnan.
Written by Kevin Faughnan, IBM’s Aca , Contributor
Commentary - Over the next five years, the United States is expected to help lead the way in the development of smart systems that will address some of the world's most pressing issues.

For example, we can expect to see new systems that will control carbon emissions and optimize automobile traffic in major cities; track food moving through the global supply chain; capture and deliver solar and wind energy; and better monitor and improve the quality of health care.

While this future sounds exciting, getting there will require today's high school and college students to develop a unique skill-set never seen before. This is why governments, industry and academia are now collaborating to develop 21st century skills for the workforce – an area that literally combines critical thinking, creativity, and innovation with leadership, global awareness, and technology literacy - to help students get prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

If you’re a student or a parent of a student looking at a career in practically any industry, or even a professional just starting off, here are some key trends you need to know about skills to help you chart a course toward the coming job market.

First, it’s not all about IT: The most highly sought-after U.S. workers will not be comprised of programmers, coders or operations workers. Instead, they’ll be project leaders, enterprise architects, systems analysts and business process engineers – jobs that embody the notion of 21st century skills.

Those who understand business principles and add value through IT are going to be essential in this new professional landscape. For example, Jason Freedman, a student entrepreneur who designed a Facebook application called Open Vote that enables peers to poll each other, was successful in launching the company only because he understood both the business model and the technology behind the application.

Using input from his peers, he envisions ways in which he can help enterprises or policymakers make important decisions such as the roll-out of an affordable electric car or new ways to tackle energy demands.

No matter if you or your student are in an MBA program, learning graphic design or pursuing an engineering degree, choose courses designed to help you forecast trends, understand business concepts, think creatively and communicate well with others. Seek out internships with companies that offer exposure to these skills. These skills might come in handy when you’re asked to model a scenario in which solar technology has to be scaled to power 5th Avenue’s fashion industry.

Get acquainted with the area of project management and process design. With multiple parties, vendors and teams involved in the projects of the future, tomorrow’s workers will have to know how to manage projects involving a variety of sources and locations.

Using your skills, you might then assemble a global team of engineers to design your prototype that would be used as a proof of technology to obtain additional research and matching funds to bring the project to fruition.

For example, in implementing a new service for the retail industry using RFID tags to help shoppers find, say, a clutch that exactly matches a wedding dress, you could be designing a process that brings together RFID technology suppliers, mobile phone vendors and a chain’s outlets.

Finally, there are technology skills that will remain in demand, especially when paired with the aforementioned skills. These skill areas include: mainframe systems analysis, design and auditing; IT security planning and management; data and storage administration; Web application development and business intelligence operations, such as data warehousing and data mining.

Even if you’re not going for an IT degree, there are plenty of other ways to get these skills. Students can now tap into internet resources available through IBM and others that provide tools, tips and tutorials on all of these topics, as well as collaborative learning communities that help share and build knowledge.

Getting smart about your skills today, which must include a balance of deep technical skill and an interdisciplinary approach to business, will help you find that dream job tomorrow.

Kevin Faughnan directs IBM’s Academic Initiative from Westchester County, New York.

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