Higher education plays a big role in preparing graduates for an AI-led economy

A career development expert at the best college for entrepreneurship shares how higher education institutions should prepare their students for the future of work.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

"Artificial intelligence is often considered magic," says Professor Tom Davenport, addressing a crowd at Babson's Boston campus.

Babson College

The latest research on the impact of generative AI found that AI has the potential to automate 40% of the average work day. Artificial intelligence (AI) can play a crucial role in assisting leaders and their teams in making strategic, as well as immediate, data-driven decisions. Generative AI will revolutionize the way we work. 

AI is the electricity of the 21st century. Ignore it and your business will be left in the dark. Automation is already under way at many companies, with workers reporting they have automated an average of 20% of previously manual tasks during the past two years. Although the level of automation varies by geography, job role, and industry, nearly all workers have experienced some automation in the past two years. In many cases, low-code and no-code platforms have enabled business users to automate their own processes.

Also: ChatGPT is the most sought out tech skill in the workforce, says learning platform

What's already certain is that today's businesses and their leaders face unprecedented complexity and turbulence. And there are no signs that the ride is going to get easier or smoother any time soon. So, the time is ripe for a fundamental rethink, with a new mindset that abandons hope of stability and that embraces the exact opposite. Here, a key question arises: what can educators do to prepare students for the future of work? 

Research suggests students want to be prepared for the future of work. Nearly half (47%) of students reported selecting their institution for career prospects, but only 11% felt very prepared for work. Students who feel well-prepared are four times more likely to have a great university experience. In addition, nearly half of students (49%) plan to continue learning through a higher education institution after graduating. 

Given the fast-changing work environment, and growing expectations on recruiting and retaining the top talent with the right mix of skills, how can educators better prepare graduates for the turbulence ahead? Given the need for change, what are some of the things that come to mind when you contemplate the modern workplace? Perhaps you've thought about some of the challenges involved in managing virtual relationships, especially between you and your supervisor? Maybe you're starting to think about upskilling for AI? 

Also: Future ChatGPT versions could replace a majority of work people do today, says Ben Goertzel

Some of you are managing a diverse team and working to provide open, equitable, and safe hybrid workplaces. These are all important things to consider, especially for current students and recent grads entering the workforce. These were also topics addressed during a multi-week graduate school workshop titled "Managing Your Career and the Future of Work" at Babson College, which has been ranked the number one college for entrepreneurship.

In an article for ZDNET, Lily Awad -- who is a curriculum designer, instructor and a career development expert at Babson College -- talks about how to position yourself to succeed in today's economy. Awad outlines a three-step process, taught by herself and leadership and career coach Lisa Mesicek on how to prepare for the modern workplace: 1) Harness Self-Awareness; 2) Develop Foresight; and 3) Build Your Community. To better understand these skills, Awad shares additional insights on what educators need to consider as they prepare the next generation of workers.

Workshop design and goals

The start of 2023 felt ideal for an in-person workshop focused on real-life workplace scenarios. Such scenarios have changed vastly during the past few years, so Awad and Mesicek wanted to shed light on some of the complexities their students were soon to face as managers and workers. When designing the curriculum for the four-week workshop they kept in mind the desired learning outcomes: 

  • Problem solve during rapid change
  • Source knowledge to develop foresight
  • Communicate knowledge through team and individual presentations
  • Develop lifelong modern workplace skills: adaptability, comfort with change, flexibility
  • Enhance self-awareness and confidence in career readiness 

Awad says the workshop ran for four weeks and met once a week for 90 minutes. Each week, the students were presented with a new workplace challenge to tackle. For example, during week one, students solved a problem of Proximity Bias: how do remote workers influence their manager's perspectives of them with little in-person time? And, as a manager, how do you accommodate your diverse workforce to make sure your approach is equitable and inclusive? These were important things to consider as students were soon to enter hybrid and remote work environments, some as managers themselves.  

Also: Generative AI can make some workers a lot more productive, according to this study

Awad says the scenarios were designed to incorporate diverse and inclusive subjects based on race, ethnicity, gender, and more. However, she acknowledges the scenarios did not incorporate neurodivergent or physical and unseen disabilities. This is something they will consider for future course design. 

Student outcomes

Participants were surveyed before and after the workshop. While many students at the beginning of the semester ranked their understanding of the future of work between "not well" to "well", it was clear that they had a pulse on current workplace trends. 

When asked to define what the future of work means at the start of the first session, the following terms were shared: flexible, AI, technology, human-centric, challenging, value-centered, upskilling, agility, environmentally sustainable, diverse, and profitable. The post-workshop survey showed an increase in the participants' understanding of the future of work, which went from "not well to well" to "well to extremely good understanding". 

Also: AI bots have been acing medical school exams, but should they become your doctor?

Interesting solutions were presented by the students when it came to the various scenarios. For Impression Management and Proximity Bias, students explored in-person social events and often presented in-person solutions. It was clear that this generation of workers appreciates the flexibility of being hybrid, but thrives on in-person human connection, especially when in-person obligations are centered on socializing, relationship building, and entertainment. 

Insights for educators 

The workplace is dynamic. It will be interesting to see which topics will resonate with future students. But a few observations could help educators who are contemplating offering practical courses on modern workplace prep:

  1. Integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into each and every example. The workshop used scenarios where workers were from different countries, used different pronouns, and had different professional experiences. There was also some discussion around mental health.  
  2. Bring external speakers to share real-life examples. During an "Upskills/Reskill" week, the participants were joined by a guest from UpWork to describe the freelance world, to consider how the word "remote" is the most searched word on job search platforms today, and also to share how some big companies use the platform. 
  3. Have students work on teams and conduct formal presentations. This format helps achieve important workplace skills like communication, teamwork, presenting, influencing, and negotiating. After all, these are still highly sought-after skills among business school corporate recruiters. Making sure teams are diverse is useful and reflective of what students will soon face in the workplace. 

Recommendations and discussion

Lily Awad gives us her feedback on the workshop: In just four weeks at one and a half hours per session, we were not able to cover all the topics we had liked to. We recommend faculty work closely with their campus career development teams to bring this element of teaching into the classroom. We also find it critical that organizations collaborate with higher education institutions as a way to ensure faculty recognize and understand employable skills and hybrid trends, and work towards teaching them. 

Topics around modern workplace scenarios seemed well received. Students called the workshop "eye-opening" and provided the following additional feedback: "I have more awareness of the different concepts due to the discussion and suggested tools and how [I] can utilize them to advance in my career", and also, "I loved the team exercises and the opportunity to learn different perspectives", and finally, "I learned a lot about new trends and opportunities that I have, a lot of them I have never considered before." 

Also: Just how big is this generative AI? Think internet-level disruption

Overall, it was a fun experience and we look forward to collaborating with campus partners to diversify our portfolio of modern workplace offerings. 

This article was co-authored by Lily Awad, adjunct instructor and senior associate director at Babson College's F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, where she works with MBA and MS students, designs career education curricula, and teaches.

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