CNBC | Momentive Small Business Survey

How we should be preparing students for the jobs of the future

Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works
Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

With June's employment numbers beating estimates, it's exciting to see workers once sitting on the sidelines of the economy getting back into the game.

Nonetheless, it's important not to forget the big picture: In today's economy many jobs are tenuous, and millions of workers are experiencing wage stagnation. Nearly half of Americans can't come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense unless they sell something or borrow money, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors found last year.

Given the financial situation of American consumers, it's not surprising that the first CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, released in June, found that jobs and the economy were the No. 1 concern for entrepreneurs, cited by 33 percent of respondents. The online poll took place April 17–28, 2017, among a national sample of 2,030 self-identified small-business owners ages 18 and up.

Entrepreneurial thinking has become a vital skill for navigating this environment. Intuit recently found that many people who are starting side businesses in the gig economy are doing so to supplement their income from a traditional job. Intuit projects that 9.2 million Americans will be working in on-demand jobs on digital platforms by 2021. That is not to mention the many self-employed people who have created their own jobs because, for one reason or another, they could not find a steady foothold in the economy.

Many of these individuals are getting by but not thriving economically. They could be earning far more from their efforts and prospering — and perhaps even finding interesting new career paths — if they were well versed in entrepreneurial thinking. Unfortunately, schools are failing to teach them the mind-set and skills they need to stay relevant in the economy.

At the moment, most entrepreneurship education in the United States takes place at the college level among a self-selecting group of students who are already interested in starting businesses. By moving beyond this approach and teaching entrepreneurship to every student before high school graduation, we'd be providing a vital service, helping to ensure that everyone in the general population has the skills to run a thriving business.

Pioneering a new approach

So how do we teach this? As an entrepreneur, I find the model pioneered by the group ZerotoStartup, based in Toronto, to be very effective. It targets students ages 12 to 17 in a 13-week after-school program, in which they learn to bring a technology product to life as part of a team. The students meet for 3.5 hours each session at local maker spaces using real equipment, like soldering irons, to create a prototype as they develop skills such as leadership, innovation, design thinking and empathy.

"An economy is not going to be created because 200,000 kids got an hour of coding instruction," says Anandhi Narayanan, founder, who is a senior manager for strategic projects at the supply chain firm Celestica. Celestica and the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship provided early funding for ZerotoStartup.

During the course of the program, the students work together to solve a problem that matters to society using technology. They pitch the product they want to develop to their peers during an initial pitch week. The students then form teams and work on group projects, hackathon-style. They are invited to share these projects later during a start-up showcase, which is the culmination of the program. One team, which developed the Hydro Home, a home water-use monitoring system designed to encourage conservation, presented their project on the Discovery Channel on the Daily Planet show.

During the course of the program, which includes aptitude testing with tools such as Gallup's StrengthsFinder, some of the participants discover that they are not technology innovators. Nonetheless, they find they can play a valuable role on a technology team, whether by leading the team or by tackling marketing and communications, says Narayanan. That's an important thing to understand, given that many of the best jobs of the future will be at technology companies.

An innovator's learning ground

"They learn something about themselves through this journey that they didn't know," Narayanan says.

One boy, who was the youngest in his group, enthusiastically took on the role of presenter to the judges, recalls Naraynan. "I realized I had this skill and I wanted to try it," he told her. It turned out he was onto something. "He was a flawless presenter," she recalls. An experience like this is a good way to introduce people who aren't born to be engineers to other careers in the technology industry, such as sales.

So far, about 50 students have completed the program, which has had two cohorts since it started in 2015. ZerotoStartup aims to hold two more cohorts in two separate locations STEAMlabs in Toronto and StemMinds in Aurora in September.

Considering the value of what it teaches, ZerotoStartup is very inexpensive. It charges the students $700 Canadian dollars (about $552 on July 17) to attend the program, offering scholarships to those who can't afford tuition.

With outside funding, a program like this could easily be expanded. The big question is why public schools across the globe aren't already running more programs like this now. There is no doubt that what students learn by solving real problems on a technology team will position them for greater success in the economy — and help to ensure that they land on the winning side of technological innovation.

— By Ken Tencer, CEO of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works and co-author of Cause a Disturbance. Follow him @90percentRule