2020 and beyond: the skills you need to succeed

Nexford staff, featuring Dr Robin Johnston
March 5, 2020 · 9 min read

The fourth industrial revolution is disrupting almost every industry around the world, while teenagers leave school with the same skills as they did 200 years ago. How can you bridge the gap?

What’s going on in the world of work?

For your parents’ generation, the routine was simple: finish school and get a job that you keep for the rest of your life. For some, there was university in between the school and the job.

Today, automation and globalization are reshaping the world economy. According to management consultants McKinsey, more than five million jobs are expected to be lost to robots within the next four years. Seventy-five percent of HR professionals who find it hard to find the right people for the right jobs say that’s because candidates just lack the necessary skills.

This new era will combine digital, physical and biological systems in a way unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Artificial intelligence and robotics will transform the way we live and work in the years to come, increasing productivity but putting people out of work in the process. The good news is that the transition is set to make jobs too: just not the ones we’re used to right now.

What different kinds of skills do I need to be successful?

A report by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit found that very few countries are addressing the skills gap looming on the horizon. “Intelligent automation is expected to boost the importance of both education related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and of so-called soft skills, which allow workers to trade on their uniquely human capabilities,” states the report The Automation Readiness Index: Who is ready for the coming wave of automation?

Dr Robin Johnston, Nexford University’s VP of Academic Innovation, says that the soft skills – intangible skills that help you interact and get along well with others – are most in-demand from today and tomorrow’s employers.

Learn how to develop the most in-demand skills for your future career!

Discover how you can acquire the most in-demand skills with our free report, and open the doors to a successful career. 

Download the free report today!

“Soft skills are interpersonal or people skills,” she says. “They are somewhat difficult to quantify and relate to someone’s personality and ability to work with others. This in-demand skill set includes good communication, listening, attention to detail, critical thinking, empathy, and conflict resolution abilities, among other skills.

“In some cases, employers may seek applicants with hybrid skills, which are a combination of soft skills and the hard skills required to do the job.”

Hard skills – like those related to the STEM subjects – are quantifiable and teachable: they include the specific technical knowledge and abilities required for a job.

Dr Johnston says examples of hard skills include computer programming, accounting, and data analysis. Some can be learned on the job, while others, such as surgical skills, are first learned in a classroom and then refined through work practice.

“One difference between hard skills and soft skills,” says Dr Johnston, “is that you can easily list hard skills on a resume, while soft skills may come across more clearly during an in-person job interview.”

  • Hybrid skills include a combination of technical and non-technical skills. Many positions require employees to incorporate both soft and hard skills in their skill set to succeed in the role

  • Transferable skills can apply to many different career fields. These include soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving, or hard skills such as writing and math ability

  • Job-specific employment skills are those necessary for a particular position. For example, a hairstylist must know hair-coloring techniques, a payroll clerk must have payroll skills, and a nutritionist must have diet-management knowledge.

10 skills employers want

1) Creativity

It might not be the first trait that comes to mind when you think of a successful business leader, but creativity underlies innovation, and innovation drives progress.

Although creativity is a soft skill, using it gets results. A study by Adobe and Forrester Consulting found that 82 percent of companies believe there is a strong connection between creativity and business results.

At Nexford, creative and critical thinking is a learning outcome for anyone on a bachelor’s or master’s program. In other words, mastering creative and critical thinking is a key goal of both degrees, and the learning journey reflects that.

2) Problem-solving

Sixty percent of hiring managers believe candidates lack critical thinking and problem-solving skills. That’s a problem to solve in itself.

Although problem solving sometimes involves scientific methods, it’s a soft skill that includes being able to assess environments, analyze situations, design alternative solutions and assist organizations in overcoming challenges and reaching strategic goals. That takes real-life experience in a variety of different contexts: something most school and college leavers don’t have. But learners who can consider cultural differences in reasoning, inductive and deductive logic, and who can use their emotional intelligence to dig deeper into problems – or can learn to – can stand at the front of the queue for the best jobs in the years to come.

3) Communication and persuasion

Did you know that a good proportion of billionaires and multimillionaires come from sales backgrounds? To be successful at sales takes a high level of persuasive soft skills. Imagine you’re a leader. How do you persuade your shareholders or negotiate with clients and business partners across cultures? Awareness is key: Awareness of both yourself and of your audience, in every context you operate in.

Skilled communicators use words as an art form, but there’s a science to communicating as a leader, based on psychological theories and cognitive principles. It’s called rhetorical awareness, and it translates through corporate communications, public speaking, negotiation and a range of leadership scenarios.


4) Collaboration and teamwork

Gone are the days where the leadership team all had their own corner office. Traditional hierarchical structures are fading – especially in startups – and flat, democratic ones flourish. The amount of time employees spend on collaborative tasks has surged by 50 percent over the past 20 years, which means students about to compete in the global job market need to prove that they can work in a diverse team.

At Nexford, small international groups work together – virtually – on international projects. Partnering with learners in their time zone, they solve problems and explore the latest issues in global business through collaboration and teamwork.

5) Adaptability

We can only guess what lies in the years ahead. The only certainty is change, so we all need to be ready to adapt quickly and flexibly to any circumstance.

Carol Dweck, pioneer of the ‘growth mindset’ theory knew this over 30 years ago when she proved that people who believe they can learn a new skill or get better at something are much more likely to succeed than those who don’t. Having a clear picture of yourself and how you learn helps. When Nexford learner Liubov Iliana found out that she’s a ‘tactile learner’ – who learns better while standing – she changed. “Now I go to a café where I can stand and I can focus for four hours”, she says in this blog.

6) Emotional intelligence

Forget IQ. Success in 2020 is about EQ, and nearly three-quarters of hiring managers agree. A further three-quarters said they would be more likely to promote someone with high emotional intelligence, and half said they wouldn’t hire someone with a high IQ and low EQ.

Positive people live more successful lives. The good news is there are many ways you can change your cognitive biases and outlook. This is where a growth mindset comes in.

7) Digital fluency

Worldwide spend on cloud computing services is set to grow from $70 billion in 2015 to more than $141 billion in 2019. Digital fluency is crucial for survival in today’s business world.

Mastering the hard skills of ‘horizontal’ technology enablers like big data analytics, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and blockchain is non-negotiable for today’s graduates. Being tech-savvy is another of Nexford’s key learning outcomes. Every learner takes digital transformation as part of their MBA – which gives them the skills to locate, access and critique the digital information they need to excel in today’s digital world. They examine the operating models of various industries and how digital transformation will affect functions such as service and product management, marketing, finance and strategy.

8) Artificial Intelligence

If you haven’t yet explored concepts in machine learning, like decision tree algorithms, or the QUEST algorithm and how it handles nominal, ordinal and continuous variables, there’s still time. But don’t take too long: analyst firm IDC predicts spend on machine learning and AI to increase by 50 percent over the next three years.

Nexford offers its MBA with a specialization in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, which current learner, Matthew Shokunbi, is busy studying on. As a financial consultant at EY, one of the Big Four professional services firms in San Francisco in the US, Matthew is surrounded by tech. “I work in Silicon Valley, with the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook,” he says. “The future is AI.” He’s cover everything from digital transformation to AI in action across retail, healthcare and education.

9) Decision making

Making decisions is both an art and a science. Effective decisions drive financial performance.

In a three-month study of 100 managers, managers who made decisions using tried and tested decision-making techniques achieved expectations 90 percent of the time. Forty percent of them exceeded expectations.


Nexford’s Financial Decision Making course helps learners implement financial data and make business decisions that create value within a firm. By evaluating the capital needs of a real-world organization, they learn and apply this hard skill so that decision-making skills start to inform daily choices.

10) Leadership

Understanding how human behaviour drives organizational behavior is a soft skill, but the theories behind it are drawn from neuroscience and cognitive science perspectives.

Every successful leader understands what motivates their teams.

What will the future of work look like in 2030?

People say that work in 2030 will be radically different than it is today. Will it?

A documentary film “Humans Need Not Apply,” shows that with more tasks being done by machines, with almost fifty percent of tasks replaced by technology. From burger bots that can flip hamburgers to machines that can write their own code and conduct their own experiments, it makes for a bleak outlook if you believe what you watch.

PwC envisioned four alternative future worlds of work. These are extreme examples of how work could look in 2030 and are shaped by the ways people and organizations respond to events.


Almost one-third of the US workforce could be out of a job by 2030 thanks to automation, according to research from McKinsey. The consulting firm now estimates that between 400 million and 800 million individuals globally could be displaced by automation.

Are you ready to take your career to the next level?

Nexford's Career Path Planner takes into account your experience and interests to provide you with a customized roadmap to success.

Receive personalized advice on the skills and qualifications you need to get ahead in areas like finance, marketing, management and entrepreneurship.

Take the quiz to get started now!

Based on data and reports, in 2030, we know you’ll need skills that focus on:

  1. Decision-making: considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions

  2. Fluency of ideas: the ability to come up with a number of ideas about a topic

  3. Active learning: selecting and using training appropriate for the situation

  4. Learning strategies: understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problems

  5. Originality: the ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas.

So, yes, the world may look very different in 2030. But, with the right skills, you have every right to take centre stage.

You need skills you will use now. Get empowered with Nexford’s programs

About the author
Nexford staff, featuring Dr Robin Johnston
Nexford staff, featuring Dr Robin Johnston

Dr Robin Johnston serves as Nexford’s vice president of academic innovation. Throughout her career, Dr Johnston has held executive leadership positions in higher education, human resources, and healthcare. Prior to joining Nexford full time, Dr Johnston worked as a consultant for the university.

Join our newsletter and be the first to receive news about our programs, events and articles.