Meet the Future Workforce: Gen Z

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Quantified self-assessment auditor. Cryptocurrency wealth management agent. Robotic tele-surgery technician.

You probably won’t see roles like these posted on mainstream job boards just yet. But within the next decade, we’ll likely hear titles like “augmented reality architect” casually tossed around at high school reunions.

Today’s teenagers and college students—those born in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, collectively referred to as Generation Z—will lead the charge when it comes to forging futuristic career paths. In a world powered by human-machine partnerships, Gen Z will one day be the bulk of the human component. Although post-millennials made up just 5 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, they’re predicted to constitute about 20 percent of the workforce as soon as 2020.

This cohort has gone through adolescence inundated with smart devices and AI algorithms, and their comfort level with technology will prove advantageous as they begin to enter the job market. It’s impossible to predict what, exactly, this evolving career landscape will look like as emerging technologies reconfigure some industries and establish entirely new ones.

But as innovations like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain become embedded within office IT and central to consumer services, students, educators, and employers alike are contemplating how to prepare for a brave new workforce.

Old-school Education, New Outlook

Today’s education system is entrenched in scores-based performance measuring and standardized testing. That’s why Adam Garry, the director of education strategy at Dell Technologies, works with K-12 schools to improve not just what kids learn, but also how they absorb information. This includes promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

With the reality that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t yet been created, these types of skills will be invaluable assets for career adaptability. Yet, throwing the old-school textbook out the window isn’t necessarily the solution, says Garry. He suggests a better way to set kids up for success is to focus on comprehensive skill sets instead of test scores.

“Of course, there has to be a knowledge-base; you can’t think critically about nothing,” he says. “But as of late, we’ve started to focus more on what we call the disposition, which is more about the culture of learning.” Garry explains that the core elements that make up disposition—things like resilience and grit—are skills often coveted by hiring managers.

“We’ve started to focus more on what we call the disposition, which is more about the culture of learning.”
— Adam Garry, Director of Education Strategy, Dell Technologies

Garry believes these credentials that go beyond grades will also be important in the hiring landscape of the future. “I think K-12 institutions could really expand upon the picture that they allow a student to leave the system with,” he says. For example, if a kid is an incredible guitarist or an expert e-sports gamer, that should be quantifiable and highlighted on a resume.

A skills-based approach may also impact how students complete higher ed. Garry thinks that kids may one day be more fluid in the education system, going to university for a couple of years to learn in chunks, entering the workforce to practice skills in action, and then returning to school later to fill in the gaps.

As debates about the rising cost of higher education and the ultimate value of a four-year degree continue to brew, Gen Z students face complex decisions about their paths after high school.

Tara Subramaniam, a junior in college, says that she deliberated her higher-ed options carefully: Alongside traditional four-year universities, she also considered an edgier educational experience like the Minerva program through Keck Graduate Institute. At Minerva, students complete studies in applied sciences and/or liberal arts in cities all over the world. The program eschews linear learning for broad knowledge, practical skills, and intellectual development across multiple disciplines.

Ultimately, Subramaniam ended up at Georgetown University, where she’s now working toward a degree in International Politics and Economics. But, she notes, she’s found ways to explore passion projects to get the “non-traditional” experience in other ways, such as through her work as founder of Student Voice, a student-run nonprofit catalyzing education equity, and by studying abroad in Shanghai, where she’s currently finishing out the semester.

“What I’ve learned from my experience is that it’s less about the actual structure of the program, and more about what you do with it. It’s more about what you want to get out of your education and whether or not you put in the effort to achieve that—whatever setting you’re in,” she says. “In my opinion, I’ve gotten the best of both worlds.”

Learning How to Learn

While reimagining education to adopt more of a disposition- or credentials-based approach may sound intuitive, it’s also a process tightly bound in red tape. Unless the U.S. education system undergoes significant reform, at least part of the onus will be on students to hone practical skills, such as coding and familiarity with emerging technologies like blockchain.

Luckily, technology is making it easier for kids to develop these skills. Learning doesn’t have to mean poring over dry, dense material. It might, for instance, be rooted in something that Gen Z students are already intimately acquainted with: gaming.

“This generation has probably logged more computer game hours than any previous generation,” says John Kolb, the vice president for information services and technology and chief information officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). According to 2017 Nielsen data, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of people aged 2 to 20 have video game consoles.

“That may be a hint to how we do workforce development, workforce training, and other [career-related] things going forward,” Kolb reinforces. “That may be a piece of the secret sauce: How do you combine those two elements?”

“This generation has probably logged more computer game hours than any previous generation. That may be a hint to how we do workforce development, workforce training, and other [career-related] things going forward.”
— John Kolb, Chief Information Officer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Resources that range from language-learning platforms to coding communities are already employing gamification as a tool to retain information. And in the workplace, gamified training programs are seeing early successes: One 2017 National Institute for Health study found that nursing administrators displayed higher rates of knowledge retention when they went through a gamified orientation process versus traditional classroom lectures.

Online courses, too, will prove useful aids for modular self-education. There is no shortage of digital resources for students to explore in this space, from online schools like Code Academy to comprehensive learning communities like Khan Academy and Coursera.“

Technology is advancing so rapidly that there is no one college program that can teach everything,” says Kapeesh Saraf, head of growth and director of product at Coursera, who stresses that workers will need to constantly familiarize themselves with new technologies that range from AI to project management. “Educational resources such as MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], designed to be flexible and affordable, will be an increasingly important part of how Gen Z remains effective and impactful in their jobs.”

Certain skill sets, adds Saraf, will be crucial in the future workforce. He lists statistics and data science, design thinking and problem-solving, and mastering the art of “learning how to learn,” to name a few. Kolb adds a couple items, including a strong math background and highly-developed communications skills. Today, some of the world’s largest technology companies are putting emphasis on intangibles like curiosity, empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate.

“You need to be able to help other people understand what you’re doing and explain it both in verbal and written form, no matter what profession you’re in,” Kolb says. “If the engineers don’t know how to communicate what they’re up to, they’re going to have a tough time.”

Data Dexterity

Educational institutions are taking steps to prepare students for an unpredictable future, too. At some schools, undergraduate data science courses are becoming mandatory. Curriculums like those found in the data dexterity program at RPI—the first of its kind in the country to become an undergrad requirement—are helping students hone analytical skills. It’s a foresighted move: In a joint report from Business Higher Education Forum and PwC, experts predict that there will be more than 2.7 million annual job openings for data science roles by 2020.

Sarah McRae and Halley Fede are two students involved with the Data INCITE program at RPI, where they’ve worked on projects such as optimizing microchip production, parsing and analyzing tourism data, and experimenting with “phyto-remediation” (the use of plants to filter air). Fede notes one project in which she and her classmates installed a “living wall” made of plants to gain insight into microbiomes using data analytics techniques.

“The project enabled me to develop and apply my technical skills toward an important cause,” says Fede. “I quickly learned the difference between writing code for class and [creating] code that other people will actually use.”

McRae has also interned at the Data INCITE lab, where she says she’s had the freedom to experiment with data in a more autonomous manner. “I wasn’t in class being handed an assignment with specific instructions; I was given a set of data and some very broad guidelines, but other than that I had almost free reign. It gave me a chance to be creative and explore the data in my own way,” she says.

Elliot Hill, a student currently obtaining his Master’s degree in Business Analytics at RPI, says that a holistic approach to skills development has helped prepare him for his first foray into the world of full-time employment. Hill, who also received his undergraduate degree in mathematics from RPI, already has a post-grad job lined up at Deloitte.

“In every class, we use a different application, a different technology, a different programming language, and they all kind of tie in together,” he says. “There isn’t one technology or one solution that is going to be useful in the next 10 years, because it’s such an evolving landscape.”

“There isn’t one technology or one solution that is going to be useful in the next 10 years, because it’s such an evolving landscape.”
— Elliot Hill, Graduate Student, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“The New Collar Workforce,” a study led by Sarah Boisvert, founder of the Fab Lab Hub(part of MIT’s Fab Lab Network) touts the benefits of peer-to-peer experimentation in “maker spaces” as a way to gain first-hand knowledge of disruptive technologies. Boisvert also builds a case for digital apprenticeships, which may start as early as high school and which often last for at least a year. This model—not to be confused with internships, which tend to be shorter-lived, less intense, and supplemental to a college degree—supports skills-building and establishes practical industry experience.

A Faster Feedback Loop

Hands-on experiences are helping students master important concepts in the classroom—but their education won’t end when they’re handed their diplomas. Companies that hope to stay relevant in 2030 and beyond will need to re-think status-quo learning and development methodologies.

Virtual reality and immersive training is a promising tactic for some employers. Kolb references RPI departments like Game Simulation Arts and Sciences, or the Cognitive and Immersive Systems lab, in which students enter a Situation Room to gain experience with a variety of scenarios.

“We make up different educational situations. They could be [related to] healthcare, they could be about business mergers and acquisitions,” says Kolb. “It’s immersive not only in the output to humans but also the input from humans,” he says, explaining that the programs store and adapt to data generated by learners. In one current experiment, students learn Mandarin Chinese by entering a virtual restaurant, where a program corrects their intonation as they order a meal.

“When you start to use those sophisticated tools in the educational context and in an interactive way, you get a faster feedback loop than with a human, and you can get better results,” says Kolb.

Ultimately for employers, one of the biggest challenges will be developing a framework that’s nimble enough to adapt to an as-of-yet-undefined technology ecosystem. Saraf suggests employers investigate methodologies like human-centered design and design thinking as part of their own internal educational process.

Hill believes that there’s still much to learn about the high-level business applications of the material he’s studied in school. He notes that while there’s much excitement about the prospect of using AI or machine learning in a corporate context, many companies still have nebulous plans for deployment.”

These concepts are so deep, and they’re very, very technical. Right now, you go into a company and you’re kind of defining your job, you’re defining your role,” he explains. “That’s both exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking. You feel like, ‘Will I ever really be able to learn enough to excel in this area?’ And you don’t quite know. But that’s the motivation for why I’m in it—I absolutely love learning, and every single day I want to know more.”