Skilling the Future Workforce: How technology empowers higher-education students to succeed

A male university instructor in a lecture hall, using Surface Go to prepare course materials while students file in.

Technology has been progressing at an accelerated pace for decades, reshaping every aspect of society – including how we live, learn and work.

Today, over half of jobs require technology skills. In less than a decade, that number will grow to more than 77%. Meanwhile, technology-related industries are on the rise and are set to account for 149 million new jobs by 2025. This means that ensuring that education evolves as quickly as the demand for new skills is now an imperative; and an area in which both the public and private sector have a key role to play.

Institutions must find ways to support students in choosing a career that suits them, understanding which skills they need, and knowing how to start searching for their dream job. And private stakeholders must also explore how best to support these strategies by showcasing how technology can help.

With Europe embarking upon its Digital Decade, it’s crucial that the workforce of tomorrow is given the right skills to keep up with these rapid changes and, most importantly, be part of this digital revolution.

Skilling the Future Workforce Roundtable

Looking to unpack these issues, Microsoft partnered with LinkedIn to host the Skilling the Future Workforce Roundtable, the first in a series of events aiming to empower higher education leaders to reimagine the student experience using data and modern technologies, and prepare graduates for the demands of a constantly evolving job market.

Representatives from different universities across Europe joined the event via Microsoft Teams to discuss the challenges of equipping students with the skills they need to succeed in a dynamic work landscape. Participants were keen to share some of their key strategies and insights into building proper support for student long-term success and well-being, including using technology to deliver personalized learning that keeps students engaged and improves graduation outcomes.

Students need to develop a wide range of skills and use all available tools to boost employability

Liz Mossop, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Student Development and Engagement at the University of Lincoln in the UK, believes that one of the biggest challenges for an educator is developing students’ awareness. Before they decide which skills they wish to learn, students need to reflect and understand that their careers will likely be in the form of a portfolio of jobs. Her students rely on LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Office Specialist certifications to find the right resources and develop their digital skills.

“Students who have a LinkedIn profile with a learning certificate are 9% more likely to get hired. On LinkedIn, applicants are nearly 4 times more likely to get a job within a company where they have connections.” says Jeff Matthews, Global Head of Learning & Engagement at LinkedIn. He believes that students need to focus on building their social skills as well. Students who reach out to alumni of their university and work to build and maintain those connections are much more likely to accelerate their career.

Staying vigilant can have a significant payoff. Students who use LinkedIn within 10 minutes of receiving a job notification have a 4 times higher chance of hearing back from their prospective employer.

“Students who use the LinkedIn Learning platform are employed at a 39% higher rate globally.”

Jeff Matthews, Global Head of Learning & Engagement, LinkedIn

Gerard Culley, Chief Information Officer at the University College Cork, believes that educators have an obligation towards their students to ensure that they are able to rely on a wide range of skills to support them in the modern workplace and throughout their working lives. And Cristina Albuquerque, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, notes that institutions must balance the assimilation of hard skills with soft skills such as collaboration, digital knowledge and critical thinking. Exchange programs, volunteer work and other university supported activities enable students to develop these valuable skills.

On top of this, university leaders were faced with a different sort of challenge during last year’s school closures, says Patrice Houdayer, Vice Dean for International and Student Programs at the SKEMA Business School in France. When faculty members were suddenly expected to deliver their courses online, it quickly became apparent that a great majority simply did not have the know-how to do it. To address this, since then SKEMA has delivered hundreds of courses to help all professors develop new skills for online teaching.

Technology tailors students’ learning experiences to their personal career goals

Students today are able to choose the skills they want to learn and discover relevant resources using the wide range of tools at their disposal. Culley notes that this form of self-directed learning is supported by tools like Career Coach, which uses AI algorithms to analyze a student’s career interests and nudge them towards the precise content they need to succeed.

Using Career Coach and LinkedIn’s network of professionals, students are able to plan their career, make the most of their connections, find their first job and prepare for interviews. As their professional journey unfolds, these tools continue to provide valuable support by helping them build new skills to stay current with the latest job trends, grow their network and discover new opportunities for success.

However, Albuquerque was surprised to see that the so-called “digital generation” were having the same problems adapting to the new normal as their professors. In addition, digital natives who have always been part of a global world and are constantly connected through social media seem to value face-to-face interactions, at least when it comes to university programs, as Houdayer observes.

Universities rely on private sector partnerships to stay informed on current job market demands

Universities need to ensure that their curriculums are up-to-date and reflect the needs of the businesses, industries and environments that their students are going to work in, observes Mossop. Before creating any new programs, the University of Lincoln consults partner organizations in the relevant industries to confirm that their students’ skills align with the interests of their prospective employers.

She also believes that the hybrid model is here to stay, and higher education is better off for it. Universities must take the best of online learning and support their students to build their digital skills, but also ensure that the campus experience is something that grows and helps them feel like they belong to a community.

Public and private efforts to boost student success

Above all, the event highlighted the potential of private sector efforts to reflect Europe’s wider ambitions of equipping its citizens with the digital skills to succeed.

EU initiatives such as the European Skills Agenda and the Digital Education Action Plan will go a long way in ensuring that people across the region are better able to make the most of digital opportunities, including by gaining the right qualifications to do so via initiatives like the Pact for Skills.

And as we look beyond the pandemic, it’s important that everyone entering the world of work is made aware of the opportunities that technology provides when it comes to finding the right job. That’s why – as part of our updated Global Skills Initiative and broader intentions to make Tech Fit 4 Europe – Microsoft is looking to further support LinkedIn in promoting skilling opportunities for students across the world.

This will involve building on the success of the initiative so far by expanding key projects for students of all ages. Alongside our partners, we will look to further promote accessible and fun computing education via game-based learning platforms like Minecraft: Education Edition, support at-home learning through online tools such as Microsoft MakeCode and its Beginner Skillmap guide and release a new Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles with Microsoft MakeCode curriculum, using MakeCode Arcade for high school students.

To promote workforce readiness among students and institutions alike, Microsoft is also launching a new Teams for Education app powered by LinkedIn, Career Coach, which will use AI and LinkedIn technology to provide personalized guidance for higher-education students to discover their career path, grow real-world skills and build their network.

And reflecting the ambitions behind the Pact for Skills’ support for micro-credentials, we’ll also build on LinkedIn’s existing offering of advanced skills-based learning by extending free courses and low-cost certifications via Microsoft Learn until the end of 2021, to help making affordable courses more attractive for students.

When it comes to equipping future generations with the right skills to succeed, it’s at the crossroads of forward-thinking policy and the latest in innovative technology that a bright future lies.

As insights like these show, it’s crucial that we all work together to ensure that students of all ages are given every opportunity to find the jobs of their dreams in today’s increasingly digital world of work.

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Alexa Joyce
Director Future-Ready Skills, EMEA

As Director, Education System Leaders at Microsoft Corp, Alexa Joyce supports national and regional governments and other education bodies in transforming education. She has worked in more than 60 countries across the globe in re-designing national and regional strategies for education transformation, including policy models, teacher training and IT infrastructure for schools. Prior to joining Microsoft, Alexa worked with European Schoolnet (a network of 30 Ministries of Education in Europe), UNESCO and OECD.