Posted by Cameron Evans
U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Education

On Tuesday, Microsoft released findings from an IDC study we commissioned to gain a better understanding of how we can contribute towards well-prepared students. The study identifies the skills and competencies that will be highly valued by employers now and through the year 2020.

I often reflect on the careers that exist today, that weren’t even an idea when I was in primary and secondary school. My role at Microsoft is not something my elementary and secondary teachers could have prepared me for and yet, they did. So why is there a gap between the expectations of employers and the preparation of this generation’s youngest minds?

We need to reimagine learning and career readiness to ensure students have the versatility and agility to find success in an increasingly complex and unimagined world. This IDC research helps us get there. IDC scanned 14.6 million job postings from April to September 2013 and identified the top 60 positions with the highest growth and salary potential and the 20 most common skills required. Those 60 occupations will account for 11.5 million new hires and 28 percent of job growth by 2020.

IDC Study: Top Skills Comparison - High-Growth/High-Wage Positions Versus All Occupations

* Indicates Communication, Integration, or Presentation skill
Source: IDC, based on Wanted Analytics and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, October 2013

Examining the list, it’s not surprising that “soft skills” such as communication, integration and presentation (CIPs) are more prevalent than “hard skills” like technical and occupation specific skills; in many instances they are mentioned together. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing and Speaking and Listening identified similar findings in what students need to be successful. Although there may always be a need for discrete skills associated with very specific occupations, for the broader range of occupations, students require “job readiness”, and the IDC-identified skills leave no doubt where educators should focus on developing and delivering these competencies. From oral and written skills, problem solving, self-motivation, and yes, even proficiency in Microsoft Office skills like presentation, spreadsheets, analysis, showing capabilities in these areas is an essential step toward acquiring a high skills, high growth occupation.

Mentioning Microsoft Office in this study seems self-serving. I get that. Consider for a moment that more than a billion people on our planet use Microsoft Office every day to communicate, integrate and present their mission, business, ideas and pursuits to one another. Office is the critical enabler of the cross-functional skill development that employers need the most for high-growth and high-wage jobs. Ten states have adopted Microsoft IT Academy so their students can learn and develop these CIP skills to mastery and prove it with industry-recognized certification credentials.

With 15,000 IT Academy institutions in 130 countries around the world, we reach 8.5 million students and educators every year. Over the last twelve months, we issued 1.4 million certifications and we are seeing daily examples of success. I heard recently from our Utah team that as a result of his hard work in high school to become certified, Dallas Pederson landed a high paying technical job with the Red Cross. He has since moved on and continues to advance his technical career.

Today, our educational system is up against too many constraints to achieve 100 percent achievement and academic success for each learner. One challenge that educators face is finding the balance between training students to become subject matter experts, while also developing the “soft skills” they will need to succeed.

As IDC notes, “These common skill requirements are even more pervasive and more required in the best jobs of tomorrow, and students who are better equipped with these skills are more suited for the best occupations.”

What does this mean for educators and school district decision makers? IDC suggests educators consider how to extend and enhance classroom instruction with technologies in a way that supports ongoing competency development in areas that we know will lead to requisite skills for high valued jobs. From a technology purchasing decision, instead of spending too much time focused on the digitization of learning, decision makers should look at how modern learning experiences contribute to the very top skills needed to succeed.

Modern learning is not the digitization or automation of the status quo. Modern educators and policy makers must discard old notions based on outdated and outmoded paradigms of learning, pedagogy, and student success. Schools must be learning organisms that can respond and adapt to changes in the world so that learners are relevant and ready.

I often hear educators lament, “We are preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet!” My response is simple, “You’re only half right, you’re also preparing them for jobs that won’t exist.” By ensuring that that today’s learners have experiences that foster and deepen the development of the most sought after cross-functional skills for high-growth/high-wage careers, we all win. The best way to deliver those experiences is to (in the parlance of our youth) keep “learning” real. Real, relevant and connected to the technologies, content, context and expectations of the modern world.

Educators have done this before. There would be no Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, McNealy or Evans without great teachers preparing students to realize their full potential in a world of unimaginable possibilities. The cross-functional skills can be developed and honed from the earliest ages well into adulthood. It simply requires keeping learners curious and enabling them to creatively express what they have learned through compelling experiences. The great teachers do this without thinking. In time, their learners become the great leaders of tomorrow.

Are you a great teacher?