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The Skills needed for the 21st Century Workplace

Posted on June 26, 2019

BA in Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation (DC238)

I finished my Leaving Certificate the same week as Ireland’s unforgettable 1-0 victory over Italy in the USA 94’ World Cup. It was a great way to mark the end of the exams and the start of, well, I wasn’t quite sure. There were lots of questions hanging in the air: would I get the points for the course I wanted? If I did, would I actually like it? If I didn’t get the points what would I do then? Should I repeat and try again? All these questions were flying around my head. But other people had questions too, and a common one my parents and their peers would ask was, ‘What are you going to be?’. Back then, this question seemed to make a lot of sense.

For their generation, finding a good job had been very challenging, so the idea that someone would move between jobs seemed somewhat counterintuitive. A ‘job for life’ and the security it offered was the ultimate goal for most, and self-fulfillment in one’s role was often a distant, secondary concern. In many ways this value system made sense within the broader social and economic context, defined by unemployment, emigration, low wages and high taxes. After all, when a resource, such as job security, is scarce, it makes sense to retain it.

Contexts, however, change, as do values. Indeed, change within our world and workplace is nothing new. Change has always been a constant – the real variable is the pace of change. This point has never been so relevant. The speed of change we are currently experiencing is, without exaggeration, unprecedented in the history of humankind. Our workplaces are increasingly shaped by the forces of globalization, exponential technological growth, diversification, interconnectivity, digitalization and automation. Regardless of the sector, be it media, education, politics, finance, logistics, engineering, healthcare, or any other you might care to mention, the sole unwavering certainty is that in order to thrive professionally, we must be prepared to accept, embrace and harness the speed of change that will increasingly define the 21st century workplace.

I lecture in several subjects, including the area of Futurism. At first, Futurism can sound vague, obscure and a bit like science fiction. However, it’s a really fascinating and important topic. Based on observations about historical events, current trends and emerging innovations, ‘futurists’ make informed predictions about where the world is going and the possible impacts which specific changes may have. For example, in autumn 2018, the World Economic Forum published its ‘Future of Jobs’ survey. A key finding from this report was that there are jobs that exist today which will cease to exist within in next ten years, and equally, there are jobs that do not exist today, which will emerge within the next ten years. With this in mind, when designing the BA in Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation (DC238), we were driven by one fundamental question: How can we best prepare students for a world and labour market defined by unparalleled technological and social change? In order to do this, we had to identify the specific knowledge, skills and attitudes which will be of value to students in their personal and professional life.

On average, people born after 2000 will live longer, retire later, and change careers more often than previous generations – a common estimate being an average of six times during one’s working life. Without doubt, it is useful having in-depth knowledge in a particular area, such as Accountancy, Languages, Advertising or Nutrition. We call this ‘vertical’ knowledge, because it relates to one specific area, and over time we can develop higher and higher levels of expertise in a particular sector. However, because graduates will move from one sector to another more frequently in the future, it is increasingly important that they develop competencies which will be required, demanded and rewarded by employers regardless of the sector. We call these ‘horizontal’ competencies because they apply across, not just within, specific sectors. These competencies include creativity, digital literacy, leadership, future thinking, interpersonal and intercultural skills, ethical thinking, adaptability and complex problem solving. The aim, therefore, is to help students to develop a strong combination of vertical and horizontal competencies which will enable them to succeed in a rapidly-changing labour market. 

A key theme in Futurism is the increasing influence of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) on our lives and workplaces. For example, a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute Report estimated that up to 800 million jobs currently performed by humans will be lost to A.I. by 2030 – just over 10 years from now. This ‘4th industrial revolution’ is expected to result in a net loss of jobs for humans. So, how might we best compete with automated or self-learning programmes capable of doing what humans currently do, only faster, better, with fewer mistakes, for less money, and without ever looking for a pay rise or summer holidays? The answer: we must differentiate ourselves by prioritizing the valuable competencies which remain uniquely human. Crucially, these are precisely the same as the ‘horizontal’ competencies listed above.

Our unique capacity as humans to imagine, to connect with others, to empathise, to intuit, to motivate, to collaborate, to adapt, to think critically, to reframe challenges as opportunities, to create, and to innovate, must be actively and consistently fostered in students. For this reason, these competencies constitute the foundation of the BA in Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation, exemplified by our unique suite of modules, such as Creativity and the emerging Future, Personal Leadership for University and Life, Social Entrepreneurship, Applied Ethics, Interculturalism in Practice, and Social Psychology. Furthermore, all students on the programme study Sociology, Media and Politics in a focused yet flexible fashion. They explore how the world functions, identify the forces that shape individuals and groups, understand how change happens, and importantly, learn to develop creative strategies which drive innovation. With optional modules, students can pursue their own interests as they progress through the programme, before specialising in their preferred area – be it Sociology, Media or Politics – in their final year.

Dublin City University’s BA in Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation is a unique, compelling and highly valuable offering in Irish higher education. Not only does it offer a diversity of engaging modules - ranging from Analysing Media Content to Foreign Policy, from Power, Self & Society to International Relations & Security, from Social Media in everyday Life to Gender & Politics, and from Global Cultures to Comparative European Politics – it also offers the opportunity for students to practically apply their knowledge.

For years, work placement has been common in degrees relating to Business or Engineering, but not in the Social Sciences. We decided to address this issue. Accordingly, students on the programme have the opportunity to apply for a year-long, paid work placement after Year 2. This offers excellent work experience opportunities, helps develop students’ professional network while still in university, and also assists them in identifying areas they may wish to pursue after graduation. In addition to this, they also have the chance to study abroad for a year, either in an English-speaking country (e.g. USA or Australia), or in a European partner university which delivers modules through English (e.g. Spain, Germany, France, the Czech Republic or Austria). Once again, this offers enormous opportunities for personal and professional development, by enabling students to apply their knowledge, develop new skills, and broaden their horizons. 

So, returning to the initial question of ‘What are you going to be?’, this, I would argue, is not the appropriate question for our current generation of students. Of course, given that the programme focuses on the areas of Sociology, Media and Politics, depending upon their chosen final-year specialism, graduates will be well-positioned to pursue professional opportunities in a variety of sectors. These include, but are not limited to, traditional and digital media, public relations, marketing, advertising, national and international political institutions, public or State organizations, foreign affairs, strategy consultancies, think-tanks, corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, and diverse cultural and creative industries.

Perhaps more importantly, though, we envisage that our graduates’ professional trajectory will be unique to them. By fostering the key competencies which have been identified as key to professional and personal development in a rapidly changing world, our aim is to help our students to develop their personal agency, a sense of purpose and a resilient work ethic. This will empower them to identify and pursue their passion and help to overcome the inevitable challenges and harness the many opportunities which will present themselves along the way.  

If you have any questions about the BA in Social Sciences and Cultural Innovation, or would like more information, do not hesitate in contacting the programme Chairperson at ciaran.dunne@dcu.ie, or visit the programme homepage here


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