Will training for the skills likely to be most important in the jobs of the future work be effective in large-scale settings by 2026? Respondents in this canvassing overwhelmingly said yes, anticipating improvements in such education will continue. However, when respondents answered the question, “Which of these skills can be taught effectively via online systems?” most generally listed a number of “hard skills” such as fact-based knowledge or step-by-step processes such as programming or calculation – the types of skills that analysts say machines are taking over at an alarming pace right now. And then, when asked, “What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the workplace of the future?” while some respondents mentioned lessons that might be taught in a large-scale setting (such as understanding how to partner with AI systems or how use fast-evolving digital tools) most concentrated on the need for “soft skills” best developed organically, mentioning attributes such as adaptability, empathy, persistence, problem-solving, conflict resolution, collaboration and people skills, and critical thinking.

Tough-to-teach intangibles such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking will be most highly valued

Learning will, in itself, become important. The skill to continue to learn will be important in all jobsAnonymous respondent

Many who mentioned the value of soft skills also noted that they are difficult to teach and difficult to evaluate in a clear-cut, objective manner in any setting, and a majority of these people said today’s MOOCs are not as effective as real-world settings in cultivating them. An anonymous professor of information and history at one of the largest U.S. state universities wrote, “It’s crucial to realize that students don’t just need skills, they need knowledge as well, and especially education in how evidence and data are gathered and processed, how to assess the quality of evidence, and [how to use] global frameworks that make sense of evidence/data and place them in a correct context. These things are very difficult to teach in a classroom, and nearly impossible to teach in large, anonymous, online settings.”

Overall, as these respondents foresee a big re-sorting of workplace roles for machines and humans, they expect that the jobs-related training systems of the future will often focus on adding or upgrading the particular capabilities humans can cultivate that machines might not be able to match.

An anonymous respondent’s terse description of top future skills was echoed by many dozens of others in this study: “Learning will, in itself, become important. The skill to continue to learn will be important in all jobs.”

Susan Mernit, CEO and co-founder at Hack the Hood, explained, “At Hack the Hood, the tech-inclusion nonprofit I lead, the most valuable skill we teach low-income young people of color, ages 16-25, is that they have the ability and the discipline to learn harder and harder things – the most critical skill for the emerging workplace. Research shows that for our cohorts a blend of online and real-world learning is an effective mix.”

George McKee, a retiree, predicted, “As always, the most important skills will be the ability to learn and organize new things and to discriminate sense from nonsense. Public schools will continue to fall behind in their ability to foster these skills in large populations.”

Meryl Krieger, career specialist at Indiana University, Bloomington’s Jacobs School, replied, “The most important skills in the workforce of the future are 1) transferrable skills and 2) training in how to contextualize and actually transfer them. These are really hard to teach at scale, but then the workforce of the future is something we are barely coming to have the dimmest perceptions about.”

Jessica Vitak, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, observed that the most-needed skills are capabilities that have always had value, writing, “As much as people like to imagine the future being heavily reliant on robots and high-tech gadgets, I don’t see too much of the workforce shifting dramatically in terms of the skills required to complete tasks.”

Many of the skills of the future are hybrid skills – requiring expertise or fluency across some of our traditional domains.Trevor Hughes

Many other participants in this study said highly valued strengths of human character will be necessary to partner with technology in jobs of the future. An anonymous respondent wrote, “The increasing reach of data, automation and eventually AI will force those jobs that remain to require even greater human touch.”

Susan Price, a digital architect at Continuum Analytics, expanded on that point, explaining, “People will continue to prefer and increasingly value human nurses, teachers, writers, artists, counselors, ethicists and philosophers. This shift has been apparent over the past 20 years or so. As we have come to prefer ATMs over tellers and travel apps over travel agents, our patronage of other ‘human contact’ specialists such as counselors and therapists, personal trainers, manicurists, and massage therapists has increased. Example: People skills in user interface and experience design will be increasingly in demand, but will greatly benefit from artificial intelligence and machine learning for usability evaluations and testing. Another example: The role of truck drivers will need to evolve as they are replaced with self-driving transports. There will remain the need for humans to manage transportation tracking and auditing, perform problem-solving, and occupy stakeholder contact roles such as sales and customer support communication.”

Trevor Hughes, CEO at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, replied, “Training will indeed be an important part of preparing the workforce for our digital future, but it won’t be easy. Many of the skills of the future are hybrid skills – requiring expertise or fluency across some of our traditional domains. Take privacy as an example. Any digital economy professional needs to understand privacy and how it creates risk for organizations. But that means grasping law and policy, business management, and technology. Modern professionals will need to bridge all of these fields.”

An anonymous respondent replied, “The two trends with the most hype right now are AI and VR. Let’s assume that these technologies will have a large impact on the nature of the future work. The workforce of the future (that is not completely displaced by this tech) then needs the skills to utilize these technologies. Some broad skills I anticipate are interacting with machine learning systems, reasoning with underlying algorithms and embedded judgments, being comfortable delegating tactical decisions to those algorithms, etc.”

Michael Rogers, author and futurist at Practical Futurist, said, “In a rapidly changing work environment populated by many intelligent machines, we will need to train people from an early age in communication skills, problem-solving, collaboration and basic scientific literacy. Without those basics in place, occupational training is insufficient.”

The anonymous director of evaluation and research at a university ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. wrote, “Sure, Lynda.com and Udacity and others that can provide skills, just like the corporate training programs we use now. … But those skills won’t be the same as an education – as the habits of mind and social interleavings that make for the types of problem definition, interdisciplinary perspectives, and incisive thought that will be most needed – deep engagement with the stuff of distinctly human capabilities.”

Justin Reich, executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, observed, “The most important skills for the future will be the kinds of things that computers cannot readily do, places where human workers have a comparative advantage over computers. Two important domains of human comparative advantage are ill-structured problem solving and complex, persuasive communication. (Frank Levy and Richard Murnane’s ‘Dancing with Robots’ offers a nice summary of the research informing this position.) Ironically, computers are most effective at teaching and assessing routine tasks, the kinds of things that we no longer need human beings to do. Large-scale learning, which generally depends on automated assessment, is most effective at teaching the kinds of skills and routine tasks that no longer command a living wage in the labor market.”

An anonymous CEO for a nonprofit technology network argued that some “soft” skills can be taught, observing, “Many research reports have demonstrated that one of the most important skills in our developing workforce is reasoning and complex problem solving. The internet enables us to teach and practice these skills in a unique and appropriate way by connecting and engaging people across geographies, backgrounds, ages, etc.” And an anonymous professor at the University of California, Berkeley said, “I do think there will be a lot more online training in the future – and it will actually be more successful at teaching things that are not directly translatable to jobs (humanities subjects, such as art history, media studies, etc.) – the things that television documentaries are already good at teaching. I’m not sure that great writing skills or public speaking/presentation skills will be taught in this format.”

Alf Rehn, professor and chair of management and organization at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland, responded, “The key thing to realize about skills and the future is that there is no one set of skills that we can identify as core or important. The future of skills is going to be one of continuous change and renewal, and any one special skill we can identify now will almost certainly be outdated in not too long. Creativity and critical thinking will be as important in the future as it is today, but beyond this we should be very careful not to arrogantly assume too much. And this is precisely why new programs, online and off, will be so crucial. Innovative, faster and more agile training systems will not only be helpful, they’ll be critical.”

An anonymous self-described “chief problem solver” said the world needs problem solvers, writing, “Huge portions of the human condition can be effectively learned through one-to-many learning environments enabled through the internet. Many cannot. … If you take a look at the prevalence of strong problem-solving skills in our society now versus 20 years ago, you’ll notice that an overwhelming majority are now quite specialized in their particular areas of interest/work, but on average have less ability than their counterparts 20 years ago to adequately handle new/incongruous/conflicting information or tasks. Instead of figuring it out and thereby training up our ingenuity-focused skills, we now tend to simply Google someone else’s answer. While this is ‘efficient’ in terms of getting to an adequate solution rapidly, it means that … people are not able to handle new inputs, be flexible, or actually puzzle out new problems.”

Many participants mentioned the general categories of communication and people skills. An anonymous respondent summed it up, writing, “No matter what kind of hard skills one comes to the workplace with, at the end of the day things always seem to boil down to people and communication challenges.”

Micah Altman, director of research at MIT Libraries, wrote, “Given the increased rate of technical change and the regular disruptions this creates in established industries, the most important skills for workforces in developed countries are those that support adaptability and which enable workers to engage with new technologies (and especially information and communication technologies) and to effectively collaborate in different organizational structures.”

No matter what kind of hard skills one comes to the workplace with, at the end of the day things always seem to boil down to people and communication challenges.Anonymous respondent

Ryan Sweeney, director of analytics at Ignite Social Media, said, “The most crucial skills to succeed in the future are going to be the following: 1) critical thinking [and] 2) human engagement (people skills). Many technical skills can be taught or learned online. There is a decreasing need to memorize information since it’s at our fingertips. Being able to learn how to learn and having the ability to problem solve will guide a successful workforce in the future. Human engagement is just as important, and increasingly more so as we shut ourselves off from others and engage digitally. I wager empathy is harder to learn without physical interaction; however, continued discourse surrounding social issues around race, gender, etc. will help strengthen empathy. With that said, I think we would see benefit from physical schools focusing on human interaction and critical thinking with more trade-school-type offerings. Most everything else could be through online systems and could make higher education even more affordable and accessible. Additionally, with virtual reality having a comeback moment, the technology for a more interactive class will be more present.”

An anonymous technology analyst for Cisco Systems commented, “The gig economy takes over, and micro-skill training will come to the fore. Debate is a most important skill that can be taught online, emphasizing the importance of preparation.”

Louisa Heinrich, founder at Superhuman Limited, commented, “We will have to launch massive re-education initiatives as technology continues to advance; if we do not, [there will be] strain on our social safety nets and even our social [fabric]. There are those who envision a post-work utopian society, but I don’t think we (as society) are culturally prepared for that. A large proportion of traditionally working-class jobs will be taken by robots or AIs, and that workforce will need to be re-trained. E-learning would be an ideal means of doing this at the trade and intermediate levels, enabled by widespread free broadband internet access and increasingly natural technology interfaces (VR/AR, voice input, natural language processing, etc.). Equally urgent is the need for our universities to stop behaving like factory farms churning out degrees mapped to job specs – as the business and technology landscape changes more and more rapidly, studying toward a specific job title and fixed skill set will become more and more untenable.”

An anonymous respondent observed, “The job of the future is the one that combines technical, operational, managerial and entrepreneurial skills.”

Axel Bruns, professor in the Digital Media Research Center at Queensland University of Technology, wrote, “Over the past decade there has been a substantial growth in generic digital literacies training, and this is now being replaced or enhanced by literacies training in specific areas and for particular purposes (social media literacy for communication professionals, data literacy for journalists, etc., to name just two particularly obvious fields). There has also been the emergence of a range of specialist positions that address the cutting edge of such literacies – under job titles such as data scientist or computational journalist, for instance. Across the creative industries, and beyond, the possession of such skills will increasingly serve as a differentiator between job applicants, and within organisational hierarchies in the workplace. Those who possess these skills are also more likely to branch out beyond their core disciplines and industries, as many such skills are inherently interdisciplinary and enable the worker to engage in a wider range of activities. Beyond generic digital literacies, some of the key areas I see as important are: 1) platform-specific literacies, e.g., social media literacies; 2) data science, i.e., the ability to gather, process, combine, and analyse ‘big data’ from a range of sources; 3) data visualisation. Until the accreditation schemes for workers with these skills are standardised, which eventually they will be, we will continue to see leading workers in these areas … be able to enter the workplace on the basis of their demonstrated expertise and track record rather than on the basis of formal accreditation. While there are many MOOCs and other online courses now purporting to teach these skills, it is important to point out that there is a substantial qualitative component to these skills – somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, especially where they deal with ‘big data’: the engagement with such large datasets is less about simply generating robust quantitative metrics and more about developing a qualitative understanding of what such metrics actually mean. Such an understanding is difficult to teach through semi-automated online courseware; direct teacher/learner interaction remains crucial here.”

An anonymous vice president of product at a new startup commented, “In a grand folly of correlation being mistaken for causation, we’re trying to pipeline all kids into college to try to juice their earnings, while steering kids away from practical technical skills like manufacturing tech that might be a better fit, opting instead to saddle them with student loans for a degree they won’t finish from a school that no employer will respect.”

An anonymous principal consultant at a strategic change organization boiled it all down into two action steps. “Some new skills will be taught,” he wrote, “but not always the ones you might expect. … The technical landscape is rapidly changing, and it is very difficult to anticipate exactly what is going to help prepare our children for the future. I see two important actions to consider: 1) Build a foundation – basic computer and network literacy, together with critical thinking skills, without emphasizing specifics – this allows new technologies to be place[d] within an existing context, and assimilated more quickly. 2) Let go of the past – my parents had to learn how many bushels were in a peck, a piece of information that is largely irrelevant today. Similarly, we need to realize our children are entering a world where they have multiple computers at arm’s reach at any time. Is long division worth learning when you always have a calculator? Is cursive worth learning if you type and text? We need to lose our nostalgia for how we learned, and equip our children with the most practical skills.”

The consultant said one more skill that could be most critical: “An important skill for the workforce of the future is an ability to cultivate a strong network, so if your job disappears you’re able to quickly find a new role.”

Dave Howell, a senior program manager in the telecommunications industry, wrote, “I can see an industry in advising workers whose course and what subject [to choose] for the next technologically driven career shift. Fast learners and self-starters, the bright, who are ahead or early on the hype curve, will overcome deficiencies in training courses.”

Practical experiential learning via apprenticeships and mentoring will advance

Several experts wrote about the likelihood that apprenticeship programs will be refashioned offline and online via evolving application of human knowledge and technology tools. An anonymous security engineer at Square commented, “Never before in history has it been so easy for anyone to learn to become anything they want to be, and that will only continue to improve.”

Connecting the virtual to the physical will change everything.Will Kent

Cory Salveson, learning systems and analytics lead at RSM US, predicted, “There will be a big market for this: more self-directed or coached/mentored, project-based, online learning options that coexist with traditional brick-and-mortar university degree credentialing to make the labor market more agile, whether it wants to be or not.”

Will Kent, e-resources librarian at Loyola University-Chicago, replied, “Connecting the virtual to the physical will change everything. Anyone can learn anything online now. With the right kind of career or social positioning/privilege/luck/connections, users can sidestep traditional degree processes. For those in industries that still demand degrees as currency, the requirements for degrees will change, continuing education will become more embedded in the workplace or new types of evaluation will become more popular. Deliverable-based time constraints rather than 9-5, asynchronous offices/projects will be commonplace, and employers will have to make time for employees to self-educate or else they will fall behind. New credentialing systems will complement, not compete with, older iterations. One will not be favored above the other in practice (i.e., if you can do your work, no one will question how you learned what you learned).”

D. Yvette Wohn, assistant professor of information systems at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, wrote, “Knowledge can be acquired through massive online means, but skills will still require a small-group, personalized approach with much individual feedback. In the future, the technology will be advanced such that the modality – online or offline – is not the issue; rather, it is the size and intimacy of the learning environment that will matter. Formalized apprenticeships that require both technical skills and interpersonal interaction will become more important. As more people get degrees, university degrees will matter less, but that does not mean that higher education does not have its place. Schools that are able to provide a more holistic learning experience that does not focus on a specific skill but is able to provide students with an interdisciplinary and social experience will become more valuable.”

John B. Keller, director of e-learning at the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, Indiana, wrote, “Online training will continue to improve, and … any skills or knowledge updating that can reasonably be delivered online will be. That said, there will still be a need in many areas for verifiable performance of complex skills and behaviors that may not be possible to be accomplished algorithmically. Skills demanded in the future will include analysis of big data sets, interpretation of trends within historic contexts, clear and effective intercultural communication, design and systems thinking, as well as the ability to advance and advocate for distinctly human contributions to progress and the advance of culture. As more and more skills are broken down into repeatable processes, they will be handed off to technology and video as key transfer platforms. The demand for skills that cannot be easily transferred via online systems will ensure that experience, mentorship, coaching, apprenticeship and demonstrated proficiency all have prominent roles to play against a backdrop of online learning.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Online classes can teach prerequisite knowledge that can prepare workers for further hands-on training or apprenticeship.”

Polina Kolozaridi, researcher at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, said, “The most important skills needed to succeed in the workforce of the future are process-oriented and system-oriented thinking, coding, etc. [I include] AI communication; … 3-D modeling; understanding contemporary physics; basic and advanced critical thinking; history (especially work with different types of documents and evidences, partly journalistic skills); information management. Which of these skills can be taught effectively via online systems – especially those that are self-directed – and other nontraditional settings? I am sure that there will be a renaissance of old-school training systems, like reading groups, apprenticeship, etc. It will be an expensive and effective educational strategy for the top universities.”

Some respondents believe mentoring does not have to be in person – in the traditional face-to-face sense – to be one-to-one. In fact, they say the online world has already multiplied the number of available mentors in every subject.

Valerie Bock, VCB Consulting, former Technical Services Lead at Q2 Learning, responded, “To develop proficiency, we seem to need exposure to war stories of others who were there when the usual rules didn’t apply. MIT’s … EdX platform has a code checker built in, which means well-structured classes can be created with automatically graded exercises supplemented by discussion forums where students can ask their questions and move past places where they are stuck. These courses actually provide the coaching learners need to become skillful. So yeah, coding is probably a skill that can be taught and credentialed effectively via a self-directed online course. In the meantime, a lot of coders learn their craft informally, by examining code written by others and asking questions about it. To me, the most promising application of the internet is the way it increases the number of potential mentors. Global organizations are already leveraging the asynchronous properties of online venues to put their subject matter experts in touch with mentees half the world away, spanning time and distance obstacles. … People use the internet every day, informally, to learn bits and pieces that help them be more effective in the work (paid and unpaid) they do, sometimes by accessing content, but often by contacting other people. The value added to human welfare by parenting forums, elder care discussions, recipe exchanges, addiction recovery communities and even stain removal resources is deeply underestimated.”

Ed Dodds, digital strategist at Conmergence, added, “The global startup ecosystem and makerspace ecosystem will both be intersecting and growing in parallel. … More intentional formal mentorship networks (guilds) are likely to proliferate.”

“What would help,” added an anonymous respondent, “is improving people’s efficiency at providing supports to others. Sort of Slack on steroids.”