The word congratulations rings through the air like a clear peal of a bell, and suddenly the sky is filled with colorful caps reaching skyward. You look around and see the students whose academic, emotional, and social development you have been helping to sculpt, wildly grinning as they watch their graduation caps float and fall in the air. It’s graduation day, and you could not be happier for your students, yet in the back of your mind, you’re plagued by a pang of worry. As a teacher, did you do all that you could to prepare these students for the uncertain world that lays ahead? Do they have the skills they need to succeed and—maybe more importantly—the confidence to ask for help when they need it? What does a prepared high school graduate look like in the age of COVID-19, digital-everything, and an economy still recovering from a devastating collapse? Here, we offer our vision for the ideal portrait of a modern-day high school graduate.

Characteristic: Adaptable to Automation

For many years, there has been a trend toward automation impacting education and career paths for recent graduates. Some young adults find themselves only a few years into the job market when a manual trade or skill they studied or perfected becomes an opportunity for technical automation. The result is a shrinking of their viable job market. Such moments pose an inevitable sink-or-swim of career adaptation and reskilling that could create ultimate advancement opportunities for students willing to be open-minded and pivot. Automation could enable recent graduates to take lateral progressions or take on higher-value work earlier in their careers, further resulting in faster career trajectories or higher salary opportunities.

The caveat, however, is that students must learn before they enter the job market to be adaptable and open to change and have the confidence to see a machine replacing manual processes as an opportunity and not a failure. Further, they must be equipped with the necessary soft skills, such as self-discipline, communication, and interpersonal skills, to be viewed by employers as having career advancement potential.

Characteristic: A Commitment to Continual Learning

Today’s graduates must be motivated by continual education and learning—and many are. Gen Z and Gen Y members are digital natives, having never known a time when anything they wanted to learn could not be found from a brief Google or YouTube search. Graduates motivated to learn new skills continually will remain valuable in the job market as new industries emerge, international business continues to expand, and technology continues to dictate how people work, communicate, build, and operate in their personal and professional lives.

Graduates who want to be successful must leverage their learning agility by upskilling themselves using certification programs, online coursework, mentorship, and even continued formal education and degree programs. The most valuable learning opportunities will relate to transferable skills across industries, businesses, and roles.

Characteristic: Successful Graduates Practice Self-Direction

With many companies shifting to fully remote or hybrid work models, the youngest and newest entrants into the workforce will need to be capable of operating in an environment where their direct supervisor is not always available with a short walk through the office hallway. Fortunately, Generations Z and Y tend to prefer autonomy and are more comfortable engaging and communicating using technology rather than holding face-to-face conversations. To operate more independently, graduates will need exceptional time-management skills, discipline, and confidence in their decision-making abilities.

Final Thoughts

To be successful post-high school graduation, students will need to accept the inevitability of change and the trend in automation and embrace their curiosity and self-discipline to find their place in a workforce evolving as quickly as its members are entering and exiting. With an emphasis in the classroom on soft skills, confidence, and the importance of continual learning, you will have exposed your students to some of the most important realities they will face as they enter the first phase of adulthood.

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