In a recent article written by Professor Robert Wolcott from the Kellogg foundation in the United States, he discussed the significant changes facing education in a jobless economy. While our parents and grandparents became accustomed to a single job for most of their lives, today graduates emerging from educational institutions face an economy where a portfolio of different jobs will characterise their career. A career comprising a single permanent position has become a rarity. More challenging, is how humans will find employment in an era where significant advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will become commonplace. So how do educators prepare students for such an environment, and what type of skills will be required?

Government policy-makers tell us that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are critical skills. Horticulture encompasses these subjects, but will they be sufficient? We need to think about creativity, emotional and social intelligence. These latter capacities will be particularly relevant in an era where most young people spend a significant part of their lives engaged on social media platforms via smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Professor Wolcott also highlighted the absence of one capability from most education offerings “how do we teach students to develop the ability to discover, select and pursue a mission and purpose?”

What short-term or long-term life objectives will a young horticulturist pursue in their career with most students about to graduate from college or university repeatedly asking themselves What job will I get? And only a few will consider how many jobs will I create? Some educationalists will encourage their students to find their passion and to follow that as the basis of their career. The oft quoted statement if you work at something that you enjoy you’ll never work a day in your life comes to mind! But perhaps we need to reorganise our learning outcomes, and educational objectives, to teach students how to identify and select their mission. While it is critical to ensure that students have sufficient knowledge, theory and practical skills to perform within their chosen career, educationalists now need to move beyond providing those fundamental skill sets. They need to engage students in more creative and purposeful activities and to encourage students to think big, to be more flexible, adaptive and resilient and to find their purpose in life. This is not just relevant to young graduates or recent alumni but also to those in professional practice. They too must continue to acquire new skills and knowledge (through continual professional development) and expose themselves to new ways of thinking and doing within their profession.

While horticulturists in primary food production – whether it be field crops or protected crops – are very familiar with the significant advances in technology and automation, those in the non food sector may feel that they are somewhat insulated from these rapid advances in AI and automation. Advances in these areas may have minimal impact on landscape design, floristry, landscape construction or maintenance, botanical collections or horticulture therapy. However, technological advances will impact on these sectors to an extent yet unknown or unforeseen. Robert Wolcott reminds us that the Industrial Revolution required more hands to operate machinery and the knowledge economy requires more minds to do cognitive work. But the AI and automation economy will require fewer of each so what work will be beyond hands and minds?

Education needs to prepare people for such a future. To enable them to research, define, and pursue objectives that motivate and inspire them to strive for their purpose in life, much like nurturing plants to achieve their full potential both vegetatively and reproductively.  As Professor Anglea Lee has found, research shows we become stronger when we have objectives, when we have a sense of purpose. So within horticulture education, are we doing enough to prepare students for this new reality and are our CPD programmes sufficient to repurpose our professionals? Are we educating students to grasp the need for life-long learning and develop the capacity to discover and define their mission in life? As Robert Wolcott says, we must prepare our children — and ourselves — with this capability. We’ll all need it!