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Comment: Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution be driven by STEAM?

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Massive changes in industry mean experience of arts disciplines will be a plus for recruits alongside science, technology, engineering and maths.

When industrial employers and organisations like EDT engage in activity linking business and education we are largely focused on the need to inspire and channel young people into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. We can discuss what has worked well and what has been less effective, but few will dispute that, for many years, our eyes have been focused on overcoming what is known as the ‘STEM skills gap’ in UK industry.

This work is still very important; however, it is valuable to lift our heads occasionally to scan the horizon and see if our current objectives and methods are still adequate to meet the needs of the future.

The future can be a disturbing and uncertain business, with ideas such as disruptive technology, machine learning and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). We are already in the grip of massive changes through robotics, rapid advances in artificial intelligence and Big Data making decisions and improvements for engineers, medical professionals, even cooks with new recipes. As in all previous industrial revolutions, 4IR will undoubtedly challenge the core workings of existing industry; only those who innovate rapidly and have the flexibility to accept and exploit new models of activity will prosper.

New technologies are demonstrating that they can do work never previously thought of as pre-programmed or routine, and studies like the one carried out by the World Economic Forum in 2016 have already foreseen significant job losses in a wide range of industries. It is also claimed that only five years from now, more than a third of the skills currently considered important will have changed.

A shaking out of the routine work is already well under way in industrial employment and this is rapidly moving from the unskilled working classes to the middle-class administrative and office-based workforce across a range of industries. While I know that 4IR will, in the medium term, also offer significant job opportunities, it is certainly the case that there will be social disruption as society comes to terms with the threats and opportunities of the new situation in which we find ourselves.

So, for those of us who are providing activities that help form the skills of those in education, what factors do we need to take into account to maximise the future employability of these young people? While focusing on inspiring young people into STEM careers remains important, might we question the rather binary choices we give our young people? We tell them that for a career in industry they need to forget about the arts and study STEM subjects. However, 4IR will require a much more blended learning experience, with skills such as creative ingenuity and placing emphasis on design, entrepreneurship and ethics being required alongside technical STEM staples.

We are told that ‘STEAM’ learning is needed, with the ‘A’ of arts disciplines being integrated into STEM learning to provide the innovation, entrepreneurial attitude, and emotional and social intelligence required in our new industries. The World Bank is similarly emphasising the importance of developing non-cognitive skills in young people: skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, teamworking and interpersonal skills. With so many cognitive tasks now being undertaken by machines, how do we train young people in non-cognitive skills alongside their technical education, allowing them to be the creative, communicative specialists in technical areas that 4IR demands?

How must those of us who are helping to shape the workforce of future UK industry respond? Creative project-based learning, solving a real problem for the community around them with experiences of industry, like the programmes run with employers by EDT, will become even more important in preparing young people to have the full range of skills they will need in future employment. STEM industries need to control the quality and relevance of industry experiences being offered by hundreds of different organisations, to ensure that the binary Arts/STEM division is being changed to acknowledge the need for a blended STEAM experience where the different disciplines work together and non-cognitive skills are emphasised. We need to be asking questions about what non-technical skills young people will need alongside their technical education to be best prepared for the types of jobs in industry they will occupy. Job types which mostly do not even yet exist.

Julie Feest is the new chief executive of business/education linking charity EDT (www.etrust.org.uk)

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