Ten years ago, Martha Jack's profession didn't exist.
She didn't have a crystal ball or a psychic telling her where the job market was going or what niche to fill as an entrepreneur. What she did have was the intuition that her journalism degree from Ryerson was a good foundation, "but I had already made the decision that maybe newspapers weren't the way to go."
"When I was rounding home plate of my undergraduate degree I just had this feeling that there was more that I needed to know," the 27-year-old says. Jack found her undergraduate degree valuable, but felt "I needed something that was going to give me an edge professionally."
Her edge came from her master's degree in digital media from London Metropolitan University in Britain. Now Jack runs her own company, eConverse Social Media Consulting Inc., based in Kitchener, Ont., which consults with companies and member-based groups about their social media presence, how to use it to connect with their intended audience and how to employ it as a brand marketing tool.
For Jack, this type of technology was new, fun and held lots of promise; it would be the gap-filler to her journalism degree. "In the back of my head I was probably always thinking about the social media part of it. I was a very early adopter of Facebook." So early, in fact, that Jack had to request that Facebook add Ryerson to the list of activated networks.
Jack is the kind of student whom educators and business people see leading the job market into the future. These students combine creativity, technology and passion. Generation Y – those born between 1981 and 2000 – is walking into an unpredictable job market, one that is, for the most part, driven by technology. But educators recognize the value of creativity and abstract thinking and its role in innovation in the marketplace.
Some educators and human-resource specialists embrace "T-style education," which refers to teaching that combines a wide range of knowledge and technology (the crossbar of the T) with the nurturing of creativity and in-depth research in a particular field (the vertical part of the T).
"I think education has always been that way. What's on the 'T' may change a little bit, but I think the basic idea has not changed at all," says Daniel Shapiro, dean of the Beedie School of Business at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University.
"I think it's always been about teaching critical thinking and communication skills, but we may have broadened that because we know a little bit more about how to teach the creativity or innovative thinking or design thinking," he says. "Abstract thinking, plus curiosity, plus a deep desire to know is what's going to lead people into a world that they don't quite understand."
But the unquestionable role of universities is to prepare students for the work force – whatever their field of choice – and a solid grasp of technology tops the list as the sought-after skill for most businesses.
As a self-professed child of the 1960s, Shapiro says he is from the generation that saw the pace of change accelerate drastically. Anecdotally, he offers that "after 20 years of shopping we would not be able to identify all the goods in an electronics store" and the fallout is that "we have had to learn to use new stuff all the time."
The ability of Gen-Y graduates to adapt to technology will have to be "inbred" because it's happening so fast, Shapiro adds.
However, technology is only part of tomorrow's job market. Business is transforming itself and more entrepreneurs, like Jack, are opening their doors to fill niche markets.
"The way I see the knowledge economy evolving is that we are going to have many more very small knowledge-based companies," Shapiro says.
According to the dean, universities have to teach students in a way that allows them to create their own opportunities and prepare them to walk out of the classroom and jump straight into small business ownership. "This we haven't done well enough yet, although we're moving in that direction quickly,"
But catering to the demands of the marketplace can have a profoundly negative effect on Canada's post-secondary education, according to Paul Axelrod, professor in the faculty of education at York University. Axelrod's book, Values in Conflict: the University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education, stresses that the constant focus on being technologically advanced and producing "knowledge workers" has put liberal arts education at risk – and these degrees have great value.
"The thing with technically oriented education… is that it does tend to become dated very quickly." But he says foundational skills remain. Things such as how to read broadly and critically, and how to communicate knowledge of the world around you. "These are things that you get from your social sciences and I don't see these things going out of style.
"I think one of the great ironies is that people in government and business and other places often talk about how they want universities to be market driven and in a way they are: the students are the market and they are continuing to enroll in the liberal arts," Axelrod says.
Students also appear to see the value: Enrolment in the humanities and social sciences has been steadily on the rise for more than a decade.
According to Statistics Canada, the top three fields of study by enrolment in 2007-2008 were social and behavioural sciences, and law; business, management and public administration; and the humanities. These fields of study have been in the top three since 1992-1993.
Shapiro and Axelrod say they see the importance of both technical training and the skills a student gains from a liberal arts education, as there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Axelrod explains that the BlackBerry and iPhone are technological responses to a series of questions: How do people behave? What do people find creative? How do they spend their leisure time?
"And people who ask those questions in the social sciences are quite valuable," he adds.
Indeed, businesses are moving toward hiring the tech-savvy, critical thinker, says Chelsea Newton, senior talent management adviser for Athabasca Oil Corp. It's the well-rounded graduates who are catching the attention
On the corporate services side (human resources, marketing, finance) there has been a noticeable shift in recruiting people who can use the latest computer program, but have the ability to think outside the box.
However, the degree to which Newton is seeing these trends depends on the discipline. But even technical employers are looking for engineers who can combine technical training with innovation and communication. "They need to be aware of things like environmental concerns or presentation skills, or how to put together the data based on your audience," Newton says.
To make themselves more marketable in the future, here is her advice to all university graduates: "Diversify your skill set outside of the natural discipline."