In today’s advertising industry, a will to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and a keen eagerness to learn seem more important than ever before. How does the industry ensure that the next generation of advertising professionals has the ability to easily adapt to a new spectrum of future-proof skills and how does higher education prepare their graduates for this job market? More particularly, does the current education system answer the needs of the industry in the rapidly changing world of Artificial Intelligence? These were some of the key questions asked during EACA’s Evolution Lab panel on the mismatch between a graduate’s skills and the needs of the labour market.

Cybersecurity, big data and quantum

First up to address this challenging question was Lucilla Sioli, Head of Unit of Digital Economy & Skills at the European Commission. What is the European Commission doing to make sure today’s generation posseses the right skills for the jobs of tomorrow? Generally speaking, Sioli explained that the European Commission can only strongly advise member states to stay up to date with their curricula, since education is a regional competency and not a European one. However, as part of DG Connect –Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology – the Commission is keen to support developments in Artificial Intelligence. They recently launched a new scheme, called the Digital Opportunity Scheme, which aims to give students of all disciplines experience in fields that are demanded by companies,  such as cybersecurity, big data, quantum or Artificial Intelligence, as well as as web design, digital marketing, software development, coding or graphic design.

In addition, the Commission also mobilises funding to spread messages to foster more on-the-job training, funded by the industry, to learn about digital skills. The aim is to encourage stakeholders in certain industries (e.g. the tech industry) to support new developments, such as Artificial Intelligence, by stimulating them to offer internships and by encouraging them to co-operate with universities that support such change. Sioli concludes: More often, we see that young professionals change jobs every two to three years. On-the-job learning helps people apply skills to specific activities which proves that transferable (digital) skills are more important than ever before.

Work experience = university degree?

So if the European Union is only entitled to strongly advise member states to reflect technological advancements in education on a national level, what are universities currently doing to provide students with the right skills and knowledge?

Paul Springer, Director of School of Communications at Falmouth University, recognises that the academic world is facing a double edged sword: never before have students been so digitally skilled whilst universities struggle to keep up with a most rapidly changing industry. Springer agrees with Sioli that work experience and on-the-job learning on a students’ CV have become more pronounced and increased in value since recent years. With brands and the industry pushing universities to teach students certain skills, there is a tremendous pressure to deliver perfect graduates who are ready to enter the job market. An additional pressure are national and international rankings, which may obstruct universities to take risks, such as launching innovative courses or introducing new initiatives. Springer ends his plea by giving an example of how his university recently introduced a new concept of ‘Flipped Classrooms’, whereby students can learn at their own pace. However, the danger of skimming a wide spectrum of skills and topics through such introductory classes is that students may have had an introduction to these, but are left with a lack of in-depth knowledge and insecurities of how to apply their skills at work.

Starting from scratch

Wouter Vandenameele, Digital Strategy Director at PHD Belgium agrees that the bridge between academia and the industry is far too wide. Although certain key skills, such as problem-solving skills or coding, are much appreciated by employers, he admits that graduates who start in entry-level positions at his agency need to be taught from scratch. Vandenameele adds that, when going through a recruitment process, a graduate’s common sense and interpersonal competences, such as pro-activity and how well they fit into a team are of  higher value than those skills they have acquired during their studies. After all, if a student graduated with a certain diploma, for instance in commercial communications, it’s only taken for granted that they can apply these skills on the job, Vandenameele reasons.

Do we still need universities?

If we want to stay on top on technological advancements in society, we need to rethink how the education system actually works and find a way that users can benefit from it, comments fourth panelist Ivona Skultetyova, PhD candidate at Tilburg University. Skultetyova continues: millennials need to be challenged every minute of every day. These days, their concentration span is much shorter and distractions are much bigger. We need to find incentives for them to apply their energy and motivation in the work space rather than in the classroom.

To sum up, education is a combination of informing people whilst also providing them with the correct skills, so how can we weave education into the transformation of society? Perhaps the big elephant in the room is a question no one dares to ask: do we still need universities? The answer is yes, we do. In a time where technology defines societal transformation, where jobs are replaced by machines and humans by Artificial Intelligence, continuous training and education at university and on the job are more important than ever. Universities need to recognise that there may no longer be a need to teach knowledge and skills that were taught a decade, a year or even a month ago, but that in today’s world, a stimulus to develop interpersonal and transferable skills that can be applied inside and outside university are key to a successful career and future for today’s generation of graduates and young professionals.