Bernardo M. Villegas
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Workplace Skills in Digital Age (Part 2)

          In the best seller, “Thank You for Being Late”, U. S. journalist Thomas Friedman makes a strong case for combining the liberal arts and professional training to prepare today’s youth for the jobs in the digital age in which the workplace is being “globalized, digitized, and roboticized at a speed, scope, and scale we’ve never seen before.”   He claims that the jobs that will not disappear because of automation are those that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills, which combination can be attained by blending calculus with human (or animal) psychology or holding a conversation with Watson (a machine) to make a cancer diagnosis and holding the hand of a patient to deliver it.  Friedman quotes from an essay that appeared in “The American Interest” (May 10, 2013) by Russel Mead entitled “The Jobs Crisis:  Bigger Than You think”: “In the 20th century most Americans spent their time pushing paper in offices or bashing widgets in factories.  In the 21s century most of us are going to work with people, providing services that enhance each other’s lives…We are going to have to discover the inherent dignity of work that is people to people rather than people to things.  We are going to have to realize that engaging with other people, understanding their hopes and their needs, and using our own skills, knowledge and talent to give them what they want at a price they can afford is honest work.”

         Another relevant study cited by Friedman was that of Clair Cain Miller that appeared in The New York Times (October 18, 2015) entitled “Why What You Learned in Preschool is Crucial at Work.”  Ms. Miller emphasized that social skills like cooperation, empathy and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work.  Occupations requiring strong social skills have grown much more than others since 1980.  Even more, the only occupations that have shown consistent wage growth since 2000 require both cognitive and social skills.  Research has revealed that social skills are rarely emphasized in traditional education in the U.S.   Studies at Harvard and M.I.T. also indicate that the jobs that are booming are those which combine technical and interpersonal skills.  David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. specializing in labor issues, noted that “if it’s just technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance it can be automated, and if it’s just being empathetic or flexible, there is an infinite supply of people, so a job won’t be well paid.  It’s the interaction of both that is virtuous.  Among reforms in the traditional curriculum of the liberal arts that I have been advocating for some time is that Calculus should be considered a required subject in the Humanities.  We must have liberal arts students who are familiar with a minimum of mathematics higher than the algebra or trigonometry that they took in high school.

         A poll conducted by Gallup in 2014 highlighted two features of educational experiences that made a great difference in the success of graduates of institutions of higher education in the workplace.  From the poll of more than one million American workers, students, educators and employers, the following characteristics of the educational process stood out: Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were leaning in school. The most engaged employees consistently attributed their success in the workplace to having had a professor or professors “who cared about them as a person,” or having had a “mentorship where they applied what they were learning.”  Those workers were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being.  All modesty aside, those are the two features that distinguish the education that we give to our students at the University of Asia and the Pacific.  Every student is assigned a mentor who gives regular advice to him or her, not only on academic matters, about his or her whole-person development.  Furthermore, in their last year, the students are assigned to partner corporations or institutions where they get on-the-job training related to their respective specializations.

         For those who are already employed, especially in the management profession, there is a very healthy trend in the rise of the role of business mentors.  In fact, there are now all types of advanced courses on mentoring that experienced managers take, either here or abroad, to hone their skills in helping younger and less experienced management personnel to improve their abilities as leaders rather than just as managers.    Many of these mentors are retired top executives who decide to spend the rest of their productive lives helping in the management succession program of large and medium-scale enterprises who want to complement the traditional executive education programs offered by business schools with individual mentoring.  I find this as a very realistic solution to the problem of management succession faced by many Philippine businesses who seem to be constantly recycling their retired executives because of a dearth of middle managers who are able to transition from their respective functional specializations to wearing the CEO hat.  There are very few conglomerates like the Ayala, Aboitiz, or First Pacific groups that have done a very good job of management succession planning and execution.  When investment bankers do their due diligence of Philippine corporations listed in the stock market or are thinking of going public, they should take a very close look at the management succession program of these enterprises.  The very future of our economy depends on how well the leading firms are able to prepare their future leaders.  This is probably the most important aspect of what we call sustainable development.  (To be continued).