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Future Skills Turn

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Future Skills have contributed to a decisive change of the public discussion about higher education, which we refer to as the Future Skills Turn. As a concept, Future Skills has gained an importance similar to that which emerged in the seventies of the last century from ideas such as equal opportunities or science orientation in European education. Such guiding principles usually do not appear as precisely tailored and empirically operationalized concepts, but rather as conceptual condensations of broadly diversified bundles of arguments and objectives – equally in the public, the political and the scientific discourse.

The starting point for the enormous career of the Future Skills concept is the insight that current concepts of higher education do not meet the urgent needs of our societies with convincing future concepts. Neither are they fit to help sustain our environment nor associated social or economic challenges. While social challenges are exacerbated by an accelerating process of globalization and digital advancement, at the same time these are the very forces that enable a multitude of new options for human development. In this situation of digital acceleration, the characteristic feature is that of uncertainty and the inevitable necessity is that of creative responsibility.

It is a platitude that the future is unpredictable. However, we must be prepared to shape it.

In ten to twelve years‘ time, children who attend primary school next year will be entering vocational training or higher education, and in fifteen years‘ time they will be the new professionals who as young citizens take over the responsibility in our society. We know little about this future. In the year 2060-2065 they are likely to retire, end their employment and/or cease working. About this future we do not know anything. Our schools must prepare them for jobs that do not yet exist, for technologies and applications that have not yet been invented, for living in a society the social structures of which we cannot foresee today, and for dealing with challenges that are not yet discernible. It is our shared responsibility to make the most of the opportunities and find ways to deal with this uncertain future. It is about nothing more and nothing less than the preservation of our planet and our livelihoods.

Solving social problems, such as those associated with climate change, the challenges of migration, which will continue to increase in the future, the conflicts arising from populist social and political drafts and the associated question of the future of our democracies – all this requires the ability to develop new and so far unknown approaches, to tread new paths and to relate the hitherto unconnected to one another in a new way. In education and science, this will only succeed if we work inter- and transdisciplinarily in the best sense of the word, to compile solutions and contributions of each of the disciplines and sciences, to reflect critically on them and to relate them to one another. This, however, is a big challenge. Higher education Institutions are struggling with it because they all share a common handicap: The history of science, research and thus also of higher education is a history of “silo-ism”, specialisation and differentiation of disciplines – the almost 18,000 degree programmes offered at German higher education institutions alone are proof of this. The old institution of higher education is faced with the challenge of having to reinvent itself – in a time when academic education is experiencing an enormous growth process and is projected to reach 70 percent plus of an age cohort worldwide by 2050. It’s like having to replace the pilot in a car race, right in the middle of a steep turn and during a risky overtaking manoeuvre.

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A strong turn towards Future Skills can be observed. This is also expressed in the instruments that are increasingly being used in personnel development. For example, a medium-sized company in the medical devices sector reports that it uses feedback forms for its employees, which are based on nine competencies, only one of which is actually technical. In personnel development, more and more importance is attached to how cooperation and networking can be promoted. For example, personality models and tests are used in order to help to understand the preferences of employees for cooperation and how mutual understanding and willingness to cooperate can be improved (medium-sized bank).

The new focus on Future Skills is also reflected in the range of continuing training opportunities and measures. Further training courses are less catalogue-oriented but increasingly aimed at networking – and thus at self-organisation. This is expressed quite practically, for example, in the fact that a human resources manager reports that today there are about 200 offers of personnel development per year, and 80-85 percent of these are organised as colleague trains colleague (medium-sized medical device manufacturer). In some organisations there are also explicit departments that emphasise the importance of learning for work and interlink both issues, for example a learning and work team in one of the participating organisations (large drugstore chain).

The shift in Future Skills – away from specialist knowledge towards Future Skills – is also reflected in the fact that coaching, consulting and mentoring are playing an increasingly important role alongside traditional personnel development tools. Coaching stands for open-ended and solution-focused support of personal contexts, consulting for a format in which the main focus is on targeted support for a given problem, while mentoring can also take place between colleagues with different expertise. The dissolution of the boundaries between the private and the professional is a trend-setting development. In one of the organisations surveyed, employees can include topics from their private environment in a coaching session. This makes sense in so far as, especially in coaching as an open-ended format, questions from the private, personal sphere always play a role and the professional context cannot always be clearly defined. The prerequisite for this is the creation of a context in which clear information barriers are defined and a constellation of trust is established.

One of the organisations, building on the mentoring format, has introduced an additional approach: reverse mentoring. This does not define a mentoring offer but formulates a mentoring need which can then be served by colleagues – above all from other departments or hierarchical contexts. An apprentice or a trainee may be training the Members of the Board of Managing Directors in a specific software topic or employees from Sales are mentors for the experts from the Development Department (medium-sized bank).