Education and Skills

These economies are teaching children best for the future of work

China education STEM jobs future employment

The jobs of tomorrow will heavily rely on a good grasp of the STEM subjects. Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Claire Jones
Writer, Forum Agenda
Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • STEM subjects and soft skills like analytical thinking will be key for the jobs of tomorrow, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report.
  • Asia topped PISA's triennial global test of math and science in 15-year-olds, with China and Singapore ranking first and second in 2018.
  • The most recent dataset to be released from the survey looks at how prepared students are to thrive in an interconnected world.

The jobs of tomorrow will heavily rely on a good grasp of the STEM subjects, as the demand for roles that bridge the gap between humans and machines increases.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report found by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by increasing automation, while some 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.

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Roles growing in demand include data analysts and scientists, AI and machine learning specialists, robotics engineers, according to the report.

Besides learning maths and sciences, so-called soft skills like resilience, active learning, creativity, analytical thinking and problem solving will also be crucial to carry out these roles.

So which economies have education systems best placed to take advantage of the future of work?

The top 10 for science and maths

Science maths reading education STEM China
The top-rated countries for science, maths and reading. Image: Statista

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial study of the world’s education systems carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It assesses 15-year-olds from 79 countries in maths, science and reading.

The 2018 survey put Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang in mainland China jointly at the head of the table overall, followed by Singapore and Estonia, the best-performing European country. Japan and South Korea completed the top five.

It also assessed global competency for the first time: how ready students are to thrive in an interconnected world - and the results have just been published.

Global competence

Students were given a cognitive test and a questionnaire examining their ability to understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others; engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions across cultures; and take action for collective well-being and sustainable development.

For awareness of global issues, students in Albania, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates scored substantially higher than the OECD average, while those in Albania, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Peru and the United Arab Emirates reported the highest level of self-efficacy regarding global issues.

In the cognitive test examining local, global and intercultural issues, the largest proportions of correct answers were observed in Canada, Croatia, Hong Kong (China), Israel, Korea, Latvia, Scotland (UK), Singapore, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Taiwan, China.

Singapore students top the cognitive test on issues of global significance. Image: OECD

But there were notable gaps in awareness of global issues, which the survey found was connected with levels of awareness among parents.

Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General said: "For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalization and globalization have been liberating and exciting; for those who are insufficiently prepared, these trends can mean vulnerable and insecure work, and a life with few prospects."

The top 10 for future skills

The Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI) assesses the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape.

It focuses on young people aged 15-24 in 50 economies, measuring three pillars of education systems - policy approaches, teaching conditions and broader gauges of societal freedom and openness - as a means of readying young people to meet the challenges of work and society in future.

“The need to develop critical thinking has never been so vital,” said the 2019 report. “Continuing advances in artificial intelligence make it ever more important to cultivate the skills required to work with and complement it.

“This includes the ability to analyse, reason and question decisions, including those made by algorithms. Critical thinking and related skills are also needed to make sense of the volumes of data that businesses and other organizations are collecting.”

Countries education government STEM environment Finland New Zealand Sweden
Economies preparing students best for the future of work. Image: The Economist

While Finland, Sweden and New Zealand come top overall, Singapore is in fourth place and joint fourth for policy environment, while it comes second for teaching environment.

It’s the highest placed country across both the PISA and WEFFI top 10s and for global competence.

Poised for future success

To be sure, certain skills ensure students are best poised for to succeed in areas such as the PISA study's global competency measures. Students in Singapore, who excelled in this category, are bilingual in English and either Mandarin, Malay or Tamil.

Additionally, a focus on STEM subjects, can ensure graduates are easily employable in the global jobs market.

Beyond teaching specific subjects, however, the best education systems are those that encourage students to analyze and think for themselves and create the right learning environments.

As the world undergoes the ‘double disruption’ of COVID-19 and automation, those economies have the opportunity to build back best.

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