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Automation will boost demand for science-and-tech skills as well as soft skills such as critical thinking, according to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Automation will boost demand for science-and-tech skills as well as soft skills such as critical thinking, according to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The Hechinger Report

The United States is lagging behind other wealthy nations when it comes to preparing students for workforce changes wrought by automation, according to a new study by a research group affiliated with The Economist magazine.

The spread of artificial intelligence is expected to boost demand for science-and-tech skills, as well as for soft skills such as problem solving that robots can’t easily replicate. But only a handful of nations have taken steps to update school curricula and teacher training for the changes ahead, the study says.

“Very few countries are taking the bull by the horns when it comes to adapting education systems for the age of automation,” Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and employment for the World Economic Forum, said in the report. “Those that are have long had a clear focus on human capital development. These are countries in northern Europe and the Nordic region, as well as Singapore.”

The United States ranks ninth — behind Estonia, Canada and the United Kingdom, among others — on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “automation readiness” index for education policies.

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The study argues that in the future students will need a stronger background in computational thinking, along with artificial intelligence techniques and robotics. The swift pace of technological change will also prize adaptability and require people to continuously upgrade their skills.

These trends will require big-picture thinking from governments, educators and businesses. And yet, according to the study, there’s been some talk but very little action when it comes to revamping education policy in response to what lies ahead.

“No one has gotten to grips with the required strategic planning for educational change in this context, and there is a dire need for it,” Rose Luckin, professor of learning-centred design at the University College London, told researchers.

That said, the five top-performing countries have all started to adapt teacher education for the workforce changes ahead, the study says. This often involves training teachers in the use of advanced technologies.

A handful of countries are also experimenting with ways to support lifelong learning. Singapore, for example, is giving citizens “lifelong learning accounts” of $500 that they can use to pay for courses at government-sponsored training providers.

But educators and policy makers are hobbled by the uncertainty that surrounds technology and its effects on the labor market. “We’re in a stage of experimentation,” said James Bessen, an economist with Boston University, “and I think it’s going to take us a couple of decades to figure out which policies and approaches work and which don’t.”

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