MDes Talks: From Classroom to Boardroom: The Skills for a Future-proof Career

There is a critical shift in the mindset with a shift in paradigm from “built to last” to “design to adapt”. Organisations are now looking for people with broader skills and capable of delivering holistic solutions. However, the demand has grown much faster than the skills could be acquired or cultivated among aspiring designers. This has resulted in a huge skill gap which needs to be addressed so that the students are better prepared for their transition from classroom to boardroom.

Related Articles: Design Generalists in the Era of Design to AdaptThe Strategy of Design to Adapt Versus Built to Last

Also See: Design Strategies and other programmes in the Master of Design Scheme - apply by Apr 30 for September Entry

The Future of Work

Emerging technologies are changing how our economy is structured and operate. Skills that were needed and valued for business growth till now are fast becoming irrelevant. Consequently, the skills required by employers are also changing [1]. For instance, when the delivery medium changed from print to screens, and now to screen-less interfaces, visual communication designers in the service sector these days are expected to solve real problems, have multi-disciplinary skills, learn to code [2], rather than merely mastering the visual language. With autonomous cars, jobs such as drivers are at the risk of becoming obsolete.

A series of challenges in the broad job market is ahead of us: we will be faced with a huge population with obsolete skills, at the same time, we have to prepare the workforce to stay relevant to changing needs. The International Labour Organization has estimated that about 500 million new jobs will need to be created by 2020 to accommodate the currently unemployed and the young population that is expected to join the workforce in coming years [1]. However, with obsolete or irrelevant skills, the majority of them may remain unemployable irrespective of the availability of jobs.

Job Crisis Isn't the Issue but Skills Crisis Is

Though, there are valid concerns about robots taking over our jobs, fear around job security is unfounded. It is believed that machines will complement, but will not replace our work [3]. For instance, doctors may use artificial intelligence (A.I.) for more accurate diagnosis but will not be replaced by machines entirely. Another example is that, Chatbots, apps, and search engines will not replace but increase seats in many contact centres [4]. This will disrupt the way we work, and therefore, skills needed to do such work needs to updated. We start to see governments funding employers, industry associations, unions [5] and national movement for up-skilling or re-skilling [18].

PolyU MDes intended learning outcomes include both professional and transferable skills
PolyU MDes intended learning outcomes include both professional and transferable skills (Photo: PolyU Design)

Communication, leadership, ownership, teamwork and problem-solving are most sought after skills. However, these skills are found lacking in recent graduates across disciplines [6]. Therefore, It is widely agreed that more than job crisis, we have skills crisis. Globally, 38% of all employers are reporting difficulty finding qualified staff and filling jobs. It is also estimated that on an average, it takes about 26 days to hire a worker in US. Hence, either skills gap is making it much longer for organisations to find the right person for the job, or companies have to invest heavily in on-the-job training [7].

Bridging the Skills Gap: What Works for Universities and Corporations

According to a McKinsey study, though 72 percent of educational institutions believe that recent graduates are ready for work, only 42 percent of employers agree to it [8][9]. Clearly, our education system at large is ill-equipped to handle this transition. Teaching methods of 20th century are no longer suitable to prepare the workforce of the 21st century where skills depreciate quickly. Keeping up with the pace of changing technologies and business practices is proving to be a challenge for the schools and universities. For instance, we may train the students in certain skills, let’s say Flash programming; and by the time students graduate, it is possible that the world has moved on to something else, like HTML5.

Beyond Vision ProjectEducation outside the classroom: PolyU Micro Fund Scheme offers seed fund for approved teams to implement students’ business ideas; PolyU Good Seed is one of the four intermediaries for SIE Fund, a funding offered by HK government, for social innovation projects for the poor and the underprivileged. These funding put students in charge, to launch and test their proposal in the real-world. (Photo: Beyond Vision Project/ PolyU Design)

Therefore, it is becoming critical that formal education is supplemented with “real world” training and third-party practical courses that help students with long-term and short-term career goals [9]. At present, most companies have internship programmes that provide valuable experience and insights into career fit and skills gap at an individual level. Companies like Target and Goldman Sachs offer extensive on the job training for fresh graduates to address the skills gap [10]. However, a lot is left to be desired as, in the absence of right foundation, such training programmes do not have the right impact.

Most Desired and Future-proof Skills for Professionals

It has been argued that skills, that will stand the test of time include interpersonal communication, creativity, problem-solving, persuasiveness and empathy [11]. In future, the competition will be higher and resources will be scarcer, therefore, holistic thinking and collaboration skills will be desirable [12]. At the same time, adaptability and business acumen will stay important whether someone works as an employee or an entrepreneur [13].

Such skills, by default are very much desired and a part of every strategic design professional’s training and practice. Going by my own experience, my training (master studies) as a strategic designer helped me gain expertise in human-centered design process to solve real-world problems. During the course, we were introduced to a number of methods and tools that would help us get familiar with the design process and inculcate creative and critical thinking skills. Many of the projects assigned to us were group projects that helped with collaborative and cross-disciplinary communication skills.

These transferable skills are more difficult to learn but also more valuable because they can be readily applied to different context and are more likely to be usable in novel situations. Hence, it provides much more agility and adaptability to an individual to stay relevant in changing times. Consequently, business world is embracing design. It is being advocated that design thinking should be at the core of business strategy to keep the business competitive and relevant [14].

Taping down the housing density debate installation by HASSELL supported by PolyU Design

Supported by PolyU Design, “Taping down the housing density debate” is an installation by HASSELL, an international design practice, to challenge our thinking about personal and public space, and how much of each we actually need to live well. The creative and critical approach is in line with the human-centred design process to solve real-world problems. (Photo: PolyU Design)

Continuous Education and Training is the Key to Growth

Learning should never stop. To stay relevant in turbulent and fast-changing world, one has to invest in continuous learning and be current in their fields. Successful employment programmes provide mentoring and real life skills in terms of behavioural coaching, interpersonal communications, time management, counselling and rewards [15]. Employers like Lyft also allow employees to explore learning opportunities beyond their usual job scope [16]. James Dyson of industrial design company Dyson is setting up a new engineering university where one gets to work along with the Dyson engineers on real-world projects [17]. Besides this, there are a number of organisations offering practical courses and certifications that can help supplement the ‘know-what’ gained at school with ‘know-how’ of the real-world. Singapore government has launched an initiative to re-skill their redundant and obsolete workforce to reintroduce them into main economy [18].

However, it may not be possible for teachers, trainers, employers and teaching methodologies to keep up with the pace of change. Through my MDes education, I understand that we need to take charge of our future learning and development, by rethinking how we learn – to make best use technology to find best sources of information – and by staying competitive with current skills [19].

Continuous Education and Training is the Key to Growth
Photo: Unsplash/ Jonathan Simcoe 


1. What is the future of work? from

2. How Visual Designers Can Stay Relevant In A Post-Screen World from

3. Yes, the robots will steal our jobs. And that’s fine, from

4. Chatbots will not replace 5 million jobs, as the data suggests, from

5. Northern Territory Government (AU), from

6. These are the biggest skills that new graduates lack, from

7. There's something wrong with the US labor market, from

8. Growing Gap Between What Business Needs and What Education Provides, from

9. Bridging The Gap Between Education And The Future Workforce, from

10. Can we fix the skill gap, from

11. AI and the future of design: What skills do we need to compete against the machines? from

12. 10 Skills The Workforce of the Future Will Need, from

13. These Will Be The Top Jobs In 2025 (And The Skills You'll Need To Get Them), from

14. Why Design Thinking Should Be At The Core Of Your Business Strategy Development, from

15. A Better Way to Bridge the Skills Gap, from

16. In 2016, Bridging the Skills Gap Is Everyone’s Opportunity, from

17. James Dyson opening own university to bridge UK engineering skills gap, from

18. Steady Progress In Implementation Of Skillsfuture Credit, from

19. These Will Be The Top Jobs In 2025 (And The Skills You'll Need To Get Them) from

Posted by Aditya Kedia – Aditya Kedia is a strategic design consultant and researcher with expertise in human-centered and design thinking methods. Aditya graduated from Master of Design (Design Strategies) programme at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has experience working across sectors such as retail, e-commerce, banking, insurance, telecom and hospitality. Aditya has worked for global organisations such as EY, Standard Chartered and Sapient as well as several startups. Aditya has also organised and facilitated many design jams, events and workshops and is active within design and startup communities. 
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general...