Eduvation Blog

Interdisciplinarity & Soft Skills

This week, Ten with Ken visits Fleming College, in Peterborough Ontario, where Ken Steele and president Maureen Adamson discuss the labour market needs of the fourth industrial revolution, and the need to prepare college students with interdisciplinary programs and the so-called “soft skills” in demand by employers.

Some of the biggest challenges facing higher education institutions, aside from budget pressure and demographic shifts, are the rapidly-evolving labour market. Most elementary students today will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. Artificial intelligence and automation are widely projected to impact at least half of all human jobs over the next few decades, and already prototypes have been unveiled of semi-autonomous vehicles, bricklayers, drywallers, news anchors, and even master chefs.  In the past few decades, the jobs that have increased most worldwide are not those that require STEM skills, but those that require people skills, communication and emotional intelligence.

Fleming College is helping prepare students for a changing world, Maureen explains, through interdisciplinary experiential programs at its Kawartha Trades & Technology Centre. In this new 87,000-square-foot facility, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians work together to build an entire house. Students gain “hard”, technical skills, but also those critical social and teamwork skills.

Multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and interprofessional training will become even more vital as “narrow” AI gets more and more capable of automating work within individual specialties. Ken shares Kai Fu Lee’s schema of AI’s impact on the labour market, which divides employment into 4 quadrants based on the level of creativity and strategic thinking required, and the level of “compassion” or social skills required. Lee predicts that routine, impersonal jobs will be fully automated within 5-10 years, while routine interpersonal tasks will require a partnership between an AI performing “back-end” tasks (like interpreting medical scans) and a human explaining those results to a patient. More creative, transdisciplinary work will require humans working in conjunction with AI tools for the foreseeable future. (Check out Kai Fu Lee’s TEDx talk, “How AI can save our humanity.”)

The fourth industrial revolution, caused by the impact of AI and automation on the labour market, means that today’s college graduates will desperately need the so-called “soft skills” like creative, strategic and transdisciplinary thinking, as well as interpersonal communication and empathy. “Not everything is technical,” Maureen emphasizes, which is why Fleming tries to integrate arts and humanities skills into many of its courses. Ken cites Scott Hartley’s argument (in The Fuzzy and the Techie) that “the antidote to technological irrelevance is to become MORE human, not less.”

Experiential, team-based collaborative learning models will help young people in particular become workforce-ready, and develop the interpersonal and workplace skills that many students no longer gain through part-time jobs.  Maureen observes that “students need to learn how to learn,” and emphasizes the importance of the employer perspective on skills and competencies. (A 2015 Canadian survey by McKinsey found that 83% of educators, 44% of students, and just 34% of employers felt that today’s youth are being adequately prepared for the world of work.) “The more we can listen to our industry partners” about their needs, Maureen believes, the more colleges can “create programs in more of a design-thinking fashion.” For Fleming, and most colleges, “it’s going to be a culture shift” that will take significant time, as well as “investment in our people.”

Maureen Adamson is president of Sir Sandford Fleming College, in the region of Peterborough Ontario.  She has 25 years of leadership experience in PSE, healthcare, government and the not-for-profit sector. She has previously served as President & CEO of the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences and of Cystic Fibrosis Canada, as VP Corporate Services at Mohawk College, and as Deputy Minister of both Tourism, Culture and Sport and of the Status of Women for the government of Ontario.

A sincere thank-you to Fleming College for arranging the onsite videography for this episode.

Next week, Ken’s conversation with Maureen Adamson turns to diversity and equity in higher education, both in terms of gender parity and the integration of international students and perspectives.  To be sure you don’t miss it, take a moment to subscribe at

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