By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Our labour market is changing rapidly. We know that younger generations are likely to have around five careers and seventeen jobs over the course of their lifetimes, and for the generations still at school, the jobs many of them will have simply don't exist yet. 

So how we prepare our young people for the workforce must also adapt. From our career guidance programs to school curricula, we should be preparing students for the uncertainty of a changing market to give them the resilience and agility to succeed.  

How we do this is a big question, and a key challenge facing Australia's education sector today.  In my opinion, the answer lies in developing entrepreneurial skillsets – and for me the soft skills are key; commercial judgement, critical and meta thinking, creativity, collaboration, networking and communication skills. It is these skills, in my opinion, that will give our up and coming generations the confidence, agility and know-how to thrive across industries, job roles and careers. 

Employers want soft skills

They are also the skills that forward-thinking employers are looking for.  Where once large companies stipulated the qualifications and experience they were seeking, today it is much more about these soft skills, and this is only set to grow.  In fact, research by the World Economic Forum into the skillsets employers will want in 2020, found the top three to be analytical thinking and innovation, active learning and learning strategies and creativity, originality and initiative. 

What I often hear from employers is that this is driven by a belief that it's far easier to build technical knowledge than it is to teach these soft skills.  And this suggests to me, that it lies with our school systems to develop these skills at an early age. 

I've talked before about the lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills we often see in school leavers entering the workforce, but with our job market shifting so quickly, the time has come for this to change.

In September, a large-scale overhaul of the NSW school curriculum was launched, and one of the key battle grounds is hard facts vs soft skills.  I believe there is a place for both in a future-proofed education system,  the key is in finding the balance and focusing education  on ensuring our school leavers have employable skills, that will allow them to succeed across industries - not just in a local market, but in a truly global one as well. 

Career guidance and mentoring have a role to play 

A big part of this also comes down to career guidance. Traditional career guidance programs tend to focus on helping students choose a career path, but in a world where these students are likely to have five careers, this is rapidly losing relevance.  When I talk to young apprentices, what I am finding is that they really need the tools to manage a diverse and changing career, rather than help on deciding what that career is. 

 It's no secret that I am a huge fan of mentoring programs, and I think these could have a significant role to play in developing these core soft skills, particularly if we can find a way to incorporate them into our schools.   I see the growth in our apprentices who are part of formal or informal mentoring programs.  Mentoring doesn’t usually build technical skills, it develops and supports these very skills we are talking about - critical thinking and problem-solving - and gives young people a sounding board to discuss challenges and ideas.  Through mentoring programs, they will learn not from a textbook, but from real lived experience, and that is invaluable in any industry. 

Apprentices will benefit

Entrepreneurial skillsets are often talked about by the media as being in the realm of the technology space and office jobs, but they are equally, if not more so, applicable to today's apprentice. With growing skills shortages threatening many of our traditional trades, the opportunities for apprentices to build successful businesses of their own are also growing rapidly.  If apprentices are going to capitalise on this opportunity, they need more than trade skills – they need to understand how a business works and have sound commercial judgement.

The growth of the 'gig economy', the emergence of a thriving freelance and contractor market across almost every industry, also means that all young people will benefit from having the core skills to run their own businesses – whether these be long-term propositions or short-term fixes for a period of unemployment, uncertainty or life change.

The idea of developing entrepreneurial skills in schools is not an educational fad, or a new idea; giving our young people a foundation in commercial and interpersonal skills is key if Australians are going to compete in a global job market.   Those responsible for overhauling the NSW education system are getting the message loud and clear from many angles – and we will all be waiting eagerly for the outcomes.