When Carolyn Slaski, Vice Chair of Talent for EY, thinks about how technology is influencing the modern workforce, she reflects on the corporation’s work for a large Fortune 100 company in Detroit.

There, a team of the firm’s auditors occupies an entire floor of a Motor City office building. And while they continue to carry out the traditional tasks needed to audit one of the world’s biggest companies, at the same time, those workers are looking to replace themselves – with bots.

“A lot of our routine work is being automated,” Slaski told a group of educators, students, industry leaders and others who attended CFES Brilliant Pathways’ annual conference in Burlington, Vt., in November. “And that’s a great thing. I know people sometimes get scared about that, but automation frees up our people from doing routine or mundane tasks to use their critical thinking skills.”

To EY, which hires 9,000 college graduates a year, and other companies seeking to thrive in the 21st-century economy, this means two things:

  • Today’s new hires must have technical skills far beyond those candidates would have needed even five years ago. “Technology is embedded into just about everything we do,” Slaski says.
  • Those same candidates not only need to possess far more than technical proficiency, they also need to master the Essential Skills, such as teamwork, leadership and agility that will help them navigate their jobs particularly as those jobs are subject to transformative change.

For schools in underserved communities, finding the resources to help students become proficient in these disparate skills can be challenging. CFES Brilliant Pathways works with educators to help students gain the experience and knowledge to succeed in school, college and beyond. At the same time, CFES’ corporate partners help ensure today’s lessons translate into tomorrow’s job offers.

Companies know that to compete in the global economy, students need to combine proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with grounding in the Essential Skills, says Kelli Wells, executive director for education and skills at the GE Foundation. But in order to fill that talent pipeline, she says, educators and industry leaders need to define what STEM careers look like.

Some of those jobs will involve laboratories, emergency rooms and other stereotypical STEM settings. But many careers need to be reclassified. “Manufacturing today is not the manufacturing that existed 25 years ago,” says Wells, who cautioned that students whose schools present an outdated vision of what STEM jobs look like may turn away from opportunities.

To wit: Fully 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created by 2025, but as many as 2 million are expected to go unfilled because workers won’t have the skills to claim them.

At the root of the issue, Wells says, is the approach to STEM education taken by many schools. Those topics are often taught in silos – math, for instance, in math class, and technology through once-a-month programming classes. Instead, Wells urges schools to design classes that require students to tap STEM skills throughout the curriculum. Because now, employers are finding that students in the U.S. are neither building the STEM skills nor the Essential Skills they need.

While 80 percent of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. demand STEM skills, millions of jobs are expected to go unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates.

But focusing on STEM at the expense of the social sciences doesn’t just threaten to strip students of part of what it means to be human – it also robs them of problem-solving skills that can’t be duplicated by a robot, cautions David Zuckerman, Vermont’s lieutenant governor. “As a plumber, you still need to know how and why something works,” says Zuckerman, who owns an organic farm.

Schools that work with CFES Brilliant Pathways never lose sight of that. “We emphasize social and emotional literacy,” says Karen Watts, executive superintendent of Brooklyn North, a 200,000-student school district in New York City. “It’s all about human beings.” As many employers lament that their new hires lack basic skills such as emotional intelligence and complex reasoning – 40 percent, Wells says – Watts’ educators are focused on bridging the gap between student and employer needs.

And today’s students are clear: They want their jobs to have value, and they want to amass a range of experiences while they’re on the job. It’s a demand that Slaski says the modern workplace can handle.

“I couldn’t be more bullish about tomorrow’s workforce,” Slaski concludes. “I think people are not going to be doing the mundane work. I think they’re going to be doing the cool work.”