In a world flooded with graduates, those who can steer will stand out

Dr Simon Walker, co-founder of STEER, demonstrates the importance of developing resilience during adolescence and how STEER can help

By 2030, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that China and India will have educated 50% of the world’s graduates. The UK’s graduate share will have fallen to just 2%. Put starkly, our 2% has to be at the very tip of the arrow of global graduate skills if our alumni are not to suffer a fate awaiting many under-employed graduates around the world. It’s clear that academic qualifications alone won’t distinguish.

So, what skills will matter? There’s no doubt that coding and, closely related, data analytics will be in demand as artificial intelligence applications gain pace. There is also evidence that creative, communication and collaboration skills will be in demand, not least because these are perhaps most resistant to being replaced by machines.

Deficits in such soft skills are already causing the economy some disruption.

The 2018 CBI/Pearson skills survey reported that 44% of employers feel graduates lack such workplace aptitudes. This lack can increase costs, in terms of additional training, loss of client retention, higher churn and mental health costs. Resilience, self-awareness, resourcefulness, collaboration, initiative and leadership are critical employability qualities.

Our data showed that by the age of 22 an individual’s steering biases were largely fixed

At the same time, these qualities have always been intangible and difficult to quantify other than through direct experience. My guess is that any school which could objectively demonstrate that their education resulted in a soft-skills value added, in the way that they can for academic value-added, would clean up.

A big step towards this would be to reform our outdated 20th-century model of how we measure the quality of a person’s mind. We have used ‘general intelligence’ as a synonym for mental quality since the war. But this contains a huge flaw; it assumes that the mind reasons rationally. However, two research traditions in the past 30 years decisively disproved this.

First, research on cognitive biases, pioneered by Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, has evidenced that even educated minds fall prey to biases which lead to misjudgements.

Second, Yale’s John Bargh has showed that we are not fully in control of our minds; they are always unconsciously steered by environmental primes around them.

This new research revises the model of the mind from simply being an engine which processes data, to being a car which both steers, and is steered, by the road on which it is travelling.

The new model of mind as a car, not just an engine, is the key to solving the employability challenge. Employers want graduates who can steer.

I know this first-hand because between 2002 and 2010 global firms such as Accenture, KPMG, PWC and McKinsey paid me to improve the steering of their employees. Our programmes saw leadership scores rise from the bottom to the top in the businesses. Employee engagement, satisfaction, retention and performance all rose. The ability to steer reduces mental health vulnerabilities, increases social agility and improves resilience. By learning to steer, an individual reduces their unconscious biases and better navigates the bumps, challenges and obstacles on the road.

In 2010, Dr Jo Walker, a deputy head and educational advisor, and I co-founded STEER to take this programme into schools. Our data showed that by the age of 22 an individual’s steering biases were largely fixed.

It made sense, therefore, to build a programme – AS Tracking – to enable students to develop these skills during adolescence before their biases became entrenched.

This year, 50,000 students will be on the AS Tracking pathway, each learning to steer. Schools often adopt AS Tracking to address mental health concerns. By tracking steering, schools really do detect and support hidden student risks much earlier. But having harnessed the power of steering to improve mental health, what’s most exciting is that they can now seize the opportunity to improve their students’ employability too.


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