I clearly remember the moment, almost 10 years ago, when a (fairly junior) employee came into my office one Friday afternoon. She wanted to pitch a new program that was totally outside the box. Her pitch was creative, backed by a lot of evidence, risky but simple in strategy, and potentially deeply impactful. This pitch became the basis of a multimillion dollar program that has changed many lives. That employee had an amazing combination of much sought after skills – skills that I have found most often people with backgrounds in STEM possess, and are truly invaluable to every industry.
STEM is not just an acronym for four separate subjects – rather it is an approach to learning and teaching that is hands-on, inquiry-based and focuses on problem solving that is reflective of real life. STEM education weaves these subjects together in an interdisciplinary way that allows for creativity, applied learning, and an appreciation for evidence and data in decision-making. STEM allows students to see how relevant these subjects are when used and applied together to solve real world problems. This shifts learning from memorizing facts and formulas, to more relevant experiences that have proven invaluable in the work force.
There is a lot of discussion in leadership and training circles about what skills will be required for the future of work; is it soft skills, hard skills, tech skills, or human skills? The answer is, all of the above. Employers from all sectors agree that all current and future employers need people who are problem solvers, risk takers, adaptable to constant change and digitally and financially literate. It is time to stop pitting soft and hard skills against each other and time to realize that both are critical and both can be developed through studying STEM.
STEM builds on the innate curiosity we all had as children. As we get older, that curiosity tends to be lost; however, it is one of the most essential qualities for innovative thinking and action. With the rapid influx of technology, and growing opportunities for automation, most workplaces today and in the future will require employees to be constantly learning and being comfortable exploring new skills. STEM studies bolster that curiosity and reinforce the practice of exploration and play – a mindset necessary for lifelong learning.
Embracing risk and learning to accept failure will also be of critical importance in the future of work. Many of us grew up being terrified of failure and yet, we now know that learning from failure builds resilience, grit and creativity. Failure is a necessary part of STEM. Every successful new innovation or product is the result of hundreds of failures. Getting comfortable with failure, specifically with quickly learning from it, pivoting and moving forward, is a regular occurrence in STEM fields. On an individual level, this produces greater resilience among employees when faced with setbacks and challenges. On a collective level, smart risks lead to product and process innovation. When your employees are comfortable and experienced in taking calculated risks, innovation increases and companies succeed.
The reality is that the future of work is already upon us. Technological transformations and a rapidly globalizing economy have meant these highly sought after technical and human skills are needed today. STEM exposure and experience continues to be one of the best and more effective ways to develop these much-sought-after skills and is an excellent foundational study to prepare for any future career path.
Jennifer Flanagan is the CEO of Actua, a charitable organization that creates educational STEM programs for young people.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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