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Preparing Students for Jobs That Do Not Exist Now

In the age of artificial intelligence, how should you nurture talents for future careers that are unknown? In this article, Prof Roland Chin also shares the role of liberal arts education in universities in this era of AI.

by Professor Roland Chin

How to prepare students for future jobs that do not exist now and which we can’t even imagine today? This is a fundamental challenge facing educators around the world. By the time our students graduated, what they have learnt from university could be obsolete. Many mainstream professional jobs would have disappeared and new jobs unimagined before would be popping up. How do you ready our students for such a future?

In the age of artificial intelligence (AI), disruptive changes are happening everywhere. AI comes from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and sounds like a STEM subject. AI is not just about a branch of knowledge. AI is everywhere and everything, encompassing all areas of education: from creative writing, music composition, financial services to healthcare. AI will disrupt all subject areas taught at the university level, as well as disrupting all job categories in the market.

What should university educators do to prepare our next generation for the unknown future? Should we still rely on traditional STEM education for mainstream jobs in the future world? In this article, I try to shed some light on this complex issue by looking at four trends that reflect the global trends of student talents and success, and discuss the role of liberal arts education in universities.


Trend 1: Expanding Population of Higher Education Worldwide and Talent Mobility

The global population of higher education has been expanding over the past decades and this growth is expected to continue over the next 10 years.1

According to the statistics and population estimation of 25 to 34 year-olds with tertiary education across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Group of Twenty (G20) major economics countries,1 the percentage of youngsters with tertiary education in 2013 is 17 in China, and 14 percent from the United States and India.

If the trend continues in the next 10 years as it is likely to be, it was estimated that the population with a tertiary degree in China and India would increase to 27 percent and 23 percent respectively, while that of the United States’ would shrink to 8 percent. This is a major shift in the global talent landscape.

Projecting into the global talent pool in 2030, only seven countries in G20 would have a positive growth of young population with tertiary degrees. China and India will account for the lion’s share of the talent growth in the world in the next 10 years.

The country who wins the talent war will most likely also win the world. In a connected globalised world, talents always seek the best place where their potential will be developed to the fullest extent possible. History tells us that the occasional rise in nationalism in some parts of the world that curtails the flow of global talent is only a temporary glitch. Talents are mobile. Therefore, students should be prepared to move across geographic and national boundaries for their future careers according to the talent demands of different countries.


Trend 2: Education vs. Skills Demand

There is no universally accepted definition of student success. Let us take a reference from a comprehensive literature review conducted by York, Gibson & Rankin 2018.2 They came up with a model and identified six key indicators of student success:

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Satisfaction
  3. Skills and competences
  4. Persistence
  5. Learning outcomes
  6. Career success

This model maps academic success as defined by an education ideal. However, the real world has no place for educational ideal. The real world is that all the people who shape students’ future including governments, parents, employers and peers tend to look at only one area: career success.

What does it take for students to succeed in career? To answer this question, we have to find out what the society needs. A recent survey from The Future of Jobs Report published and revealed the trend of skills demand in 2018 and 2022.3 By 2022, the top 10 skills demand will have shifted significantly.

The survey findings suggest within a short span of four years: trustworthiness is out. Technology design and programming is in. Coordination and time management is out. Systems analysis and evaluation is in.

So, the trend suggests human-oriented value-based skills are out while hard-core cold-headed skills are in. Long gone are the core skills we cherished 10 to 20 years ago, like people skills, communication skills, teamwork, commitment, sense of responsibility, enthusiasm and positive work attitude. In the A.I. Age, these will sound like stone-age job specifications.

We can see that there is a big mismatch between what the society needs and what the university produces. Who is the best decider on what sort of talents to nurture? Universities, based on educational ideals, or political leaders and employers and parents, based on what they thinking about success?


Trend 3: Global Competitiveness

Competition between countries often decides the world’s political order. National competition is fierce in all fields from economics, science and technology, industry, to military. According to the global competitiveness report 2017-2018,4 the two key common determinants of national competitiveness are Science and Technology, and Government System. That means innovation and government policies are the key drivers of national competitiveness.

Since smart manufacturing and robotics will lead to the disruption of a large number of jobs, it is crucial to create conditions that can withstand economic shocks and support workers through the transition period. Otherwise the results would be catastrophic social shock.

In this regard, national competition will drive universities to nurture the kind of talents that would serve national competitiveness. National competitiveness depends on economic power, industrial and manufacturing power, and military might, and all these are driven by science and technology. Arts and humanities subject like arts and culture, poetry and philosophy, literature, music etc would enrich our life and make the world a better place. But they are not a key driver in the race to national supremacy. AI is. STEM is. This leads to a long-drawn debate on the roles and importance of STEM and non-STEM.


Trend 4: STEM vs. Non-STEM?

There is no doubt STEM is of critical importance. According to the statistics of projected percentage in STEM jobs from 2010 to 2020 published by the US Government, the growth of STEM jobs is much higher than non-STEM jobs. In tertiary education field,5 there were more than 500,000 STEM graduates while non-STEM degrees were no more than 400,000 graduates. The degree trends between STEM and non-STEM subjects has become more divergent since 2015, with the STEM curve going up and non-STEM curve trending down.

The above figures implied that students may see STEM subjects as springboards for their careers as the society tends to demand more STEM jobs. However, when we look at a case study from the US internet industry, the result may tell a different story.

The number of professionals employed by the US internet industry with computer science major is about 27,737, while those from non-technical majors is almost doubled, at 50,077. The job growth pattern contradicts the statistics showing the preference for STEM degrees.

When facing the unknown future, what kind of talent do we need? Back to the question: how should we nurture talents for future careers that are unknown and unimaginable?


Tech and Liberal Arts

To thrive in the A.I. age, graduates should be multi-talented to face the unknown future. All STEM curriculum should include key components of liberal arts education. STEM education is not the only way of nurturing talents. We should not only understand the machine, more importantly we must try to understand human. Liberal arts ought to be embedded in the education of technology and STEM.

As AI and STEM are making ground-breaking discoveries, we found renew value in the “back to basics” of education. We should have more face-to-face and peer-to-peer learning. We should learn by doing and by service, as this is the only way to make our future generation compassionate, empathetic, and caring. It is humanities-enriched STEM education grounded in the fine tradition of liberal arts that will help our students to be future-ready. As Steve Jobs said on 3 March 2011, technology should marry with the liberal arts and humanities that yields us the results to make our hearts sing. [APBN]


  1. OECD (2015) Education Indicators in Focus
  2. T.T. York, C. Gibson & S. Rankin (2015) Defining and Measuring Academic Success, Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, (20) P.5.
  3. World Economic Forum 2018. Source: www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/future-of-jobs-2018-things-to-know/
  4. Press release of global competitiveness report 2017-2018. Source: http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-index-2017-2018/press-release/)
  5. Source: Linkedin, US Internet Workers

About the Author

Professor Roland Chin is president and vice-chancellor of Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).