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3 ways to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is future-proof

We need to teach students to think like entrepreneurs.

3 ways to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is future-proof
[Photo: Stanley Morales/Unsplash]

On an organizational Zoom call last month, the topic of learning how to type came up. A few participants mentioned that they had learned on typewriters (including me), and it hit me just how quickly the world has evolved over the past few decades. The rate of change is mind-boggling, and it’s expected to continue to increase exponentially as we progress through the 21st century.

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Our youth will encounter an even more dizzying pace of innovation by the time they enter the workforce. Will they be prepared? And how can the educational system play a part in training students for a future that has yet to arrive, using the resources currently available?

A majority of the jobs today’s students will take on as adults have not even been created yet—according to some estimates. Increasingly, employers and educators are realizing that young people need to be equipped not only with the technical skills to be successful, but also with the less tangible durable skills that will be required to compete in a rapidly evolving environment.

These skills are all part of the entrepreneurial mindset; specifically, characteristics that enable people to identify and make the most of opportunities, overcome challenges, and learn from setbacks. Skills like future orientation, comfort with risk, critical thinking, and self-reliance are all essential for remaining flexible and adaptable as the workplace changes.

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When it comes to mastering these skills, it’s the marriage of principle to action that counts. As Nico Valencia, innovation catalyst and corporate social responsibility strategist at Intuit, puts it: “Nobody pays someone to know how to fight a fire—they pay firefighters.” (Intuit will be honored with an entrepreneurial leadership award at  NFTE’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards Gala on April 7.)

Here are three ways to put the entrepreneurial mindset to work to increase student engagement, improve the depth of their learning, and better prepare them for an uncertain professional future.

INCORPORATE MORE PROJECT-BASED LEARNING

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Project-based learning (PBL) is an instructional methodology in which students engage in meaningful challenges that require them to become facilitators in their own learning experience.

Contrary to the traditional classroom model, where the educator serves as the source of all knowledge, in PBL students are taught basic foundational principles, and then assigned to create a tangible artifact that proves they have mastered their subject.

Each fall, students from all over the world are invited to participate in the World Series of Innovation, an online competition sponsored by NFTE that asks them to develop innovative, business-based solutions aligned with the United Nations Global Goals. These challenges are tied to real world issues, such as climate change or food insecurity. Students conduct research using available data to understand the root causes of the issue they choose, and then incorporate Intuit’s Design for Delight principles to ideate potential solutions.

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PBL encourages youth to engage in active, kinetic learning, hypothesizing potential solutions, then testing their answers to verify that they work.

CONNECT CONTENT TO REAL-WORLD CONTEXT

In a recent poll of school-age children, Gallup discovered that by high school, only a third of students report that they feel they are “highly engaged.” At the root of this disengagement is the perception that what they are learning doesn’t matter in the real world.

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Incorporating real-world context into content has been shown to increase engagement. Students who are able to connect the information they are learning to real life ultimately fare better not only in the classroom, but also at retaining what they have learned, and ultimately at applying these concepts as they move through their professional lives.

Students who take NFTE courses as part of their middle or high school curriculum learn to activate the entrepreneurial mindset, and many actually launch viable businesses. NFTE’s 2020 national entrepreneurship champion Jose Rodriguez started his abilities-inclusive apparel brand Tasium in honor of his younger brother, who is on the autism spectrum. In his first year in business, Jose has sold over 30,000 units and had the honor of sharing his journey with business professionals from across the globe at the EY Annual Strategic Growth Forum.

CELEBRATE THE POWER OF FAILURE

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The worst four-letter word a student can hear is fail. Even schools are measured by how well they avoid failure.

However, being risk averse has the unintended consequence of stifling creativity, adaptability, and innovation, both in systems and in individual students. Rather than being the opposite of success, failure is a critical component of the process of becoming successful. There isn’t a successful person in the entirety of history who reached their celebrated status without encountering some level of failure along the way.

Reimagining a system of education that no longer avoids failure, but rather encourages and celebrates failure is a key step in developing resilient young people. The goal is to fail fast in order to learn and create the next iteration of a potential solution. The grit that young people gain from failing in a controlled environment gives them the fortitude to approach an uncertain world with the confidence that they are prepared to handle whatever the future throws at them.

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“These durable skills apply anywhere: entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, family, education,” says Intuit’s Valencia. “You are more valuable to employers if you can solve problems as you go. Problems are not static. When your problems fight, you have to know how to fight back.”

The late futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Yet, in order to unlearn and relearn, one needs the kinds of flexible, durable skills embodied in the entrepreneurial mindset, and to have had some real-world practice using them.

Or as Valencia says, “Tomorrow’s workforce will have to continuously evolve to survive. It’s in our best interest if we do the work necessary to future-proof them today.”

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Daniel Williams is program manager at Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a national nonprofit that teaches students in low-income communities how to launch businesses.

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