It is becoming more and more apparent that the development of automation-enabled technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics are continuing to rapidly change the U.S. work environment. Globally, adoption of automation technologies could affect 50% of the world economy, 1.2 billion employees, and $14.6 trillion in wages.These technologies aim to bring higher levels of economic growth, efficiency, and convenience in the near future; progressive automation may be a substantial benefit for many businesses and industries across the nation by improving productivity. 

However, this also leads to difficult questions of the larger impact it will have on jobs, skills, and wages. The future day-to-day nature of work could be drastically different for virtually everyone as machine learning continues to penetrate industries such as customer experience, energy and mining, manufacturing, retail, and software development. Even fields that have been notoriously resistant to innovation, such as healthcare and gas and oil, will be affected. Automation will affect workers across age brackets, but both the youngest and oldest segments of the labor force face unique risks. 

Many college students today are feeling the heat of tomorrow’s harsh realities as technological innovation is increasingly making human influence on business activities obsolete and more and more roles that previously required humans are either becoming fully automated or semiautomated. But instead of boring you by describing the ins and outs of artificial intelligence and the many other disruptive emerging technologies, let’s focus on how this “disruption” translates to college students and how it can be perceived as both a challenge and an opportunity.

How does this translate to college students?

Technology disruption is affecting all students pursuing a degree in higher education, as many of the basic processes and tools a student learns now may become obsolete in the near future. For example, young and midcareer professionals who were students of graphic design in the 1990s can attest that that the shift to graphics software has eliminated the need to cut illustrations and images on graphing tables by hand, and students who used more basic Web-development software in the 2000s can now rely on readymade templates in content-management systems today. Hearing or reading about this obsolescence can create a considerable amount of anxiety for young adults who are either already enrolled at a university or are beginning the process of applying. 

Although highly technical skills seem ideal at first glance, many that are in high demand today may become obsolete in the future.

Disruptive innovation is also putting a lot of pressure on young adults who may have not yet fully grasped what their real degree interests are as the environment around them is changing at such a rapid rate. Polarization between high- and low-skill jobs is growing rapidly, causing many students to choose a major with an emphasis in advanced technical expertise. Although highly technical skills seem ideal at first glance, many that are in high demand today may become obsolete in the future.

How can students prepare for an uncertain future? 

Amid the many stories of how technological advances and automation will disrupt the workforce, there has been a new shift in focus on the certain skills employers are looking for in a hire: human capabilities that do not require highly technical expertise. These capabilities are often called “soft skills” because they are virtually impossible to automate. An article published by Deloitte names just a few of these skills:

Empathy: The ability to understand and share feelings with one another.
Curiosity: The strong desire to seek out new information and experiences.
Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from difficult situations or failure.
Creativity: The use of the imagination or original ideas to create innovative ideas.
Emotional Intelligence: Understanding an individual’s feelings and experiences and recognizing how they shape that individual.
Teamwork: The ability to collaborate with others toward a specific goal.
Social Intelligence: Understanding human interactions in social settings (aka “reading the room”).
Critical Thinking: Evaluating, analyzing, and reconstructing different information in order to make a judgement.
Adaptive Thinking: The ability to recognize unexpected scenarios and quickly consider the best response.

Soft skills are arguably more relevant for employers because while technical skills will fall in and out of relevance.

These skills are arguably more relevant for employers because while technical skills will fall in and out of relevance, these soft skills are the foundation of an individual’s ability to continuously learn and adapt, making them continuously valuable in the workplace.

A competitive advantage 

The overall purpose of a college education is to be able to translate the plethora of concepts you’ve learned into work conducted in the labor market. A report conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that the soft skills employers are looking for and the skills demonstrated by liberal-arts students are not all that different. A student’s immersion in a diverse array of high-impact learning experiences and a broad, flexible curriculum can equip them with the necessary soft skills that will help them stay relevant even as more technical jobs face automation. 


Empathy: College, and specifically residential liberal-arts colleges, consists of living in close proximity to your peers. Learning to understand and share feelings with one another is a huge part of it.
Curiosity: Remember all those useful questions you asked in your seminar class? Keep asking good questions. This will help you learn more and at a faster rate.
Resilience: The ability to learn from failure and bounce back is the foundation for growth. Failing an exam or not getting the grade you wanted is an experience basically all students can share. The ability for students to recover from those situations can be replicated for similar future situations. 
Creativity: A liberal-arts education often doesn’t have strict guidelines on curriculum and openly encourages students to immerse themselves in their own unique and creative experiences. Students often find themselves taking classes in studio art, theatre, creative writing, and many more that promote creativity. 
Emotional Intelligence: A wide array of learning experiences allows students to interact with many different people. Having this exposure allows students to have a deeper understanding of not only one’s self but also the emotions of others who may have different trains of thought. Furthermore, exposure to different experiences allows a student to understand how different experiences can shape those around them.
Teamwork: This is practically a given. A large portion of work conducted in a liberal-arts setting consists of group projects, student organizations, and intramural athletics that can easily be translated to a work setting. 
Social Intelligence: Again, because a large chunk of a liberal-arts education is collaborative work, students develop the capacity to understand one’s self and others on a deeper level.
Critical Thinking: Political science, history, and English are just a few majors that are known to promote critical thinking. However, in all liberal-arts courses, a student will evaluate, analyze, and reconstruct information in order to draw conclusions. 
Adaptive Thinking: A liberal-arts education provides the opportunity for students to take a diverse array of courses in fields students may find intriguing but aren’t particularly comfortable with. Because they learn how to think differently and be resourceful, liberal-arts students develop the ability to quickly provide solutions for unexpected situations in their careers.

Continuous disruption of virtually every possible career field as a result of emerging technologies will continue to happen in the future. However, this has been the case for almost every generation in the past, and every time, it has generated feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, from trains and telephones to radio and robots. However, the uniquely human skills that have always remained vital will continue to endure in a future that none of us can imagine. Higher education is meant to prepare students with the tools necessary for success. More specifically, a liberal-arts education provides students with the soft skills that will prepare them for lifelong learning and make them valuable to employers, regardless of the field and of the technological advances that change the future of work.