Bad career advice at school still bugs me years later. A teacher said I needed to study physics, chemistry and advanced maths to get a high entry score for university.
Humanities were my strength and interest. Yet I took chemistry on the teacher's advice, failed and wished I studied history instead.
I wonder how many students are getting bad career advice because of the obsession with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. If you believe the hype, students lacking STEM skills will struggle in the future labour market.
The Australian Industry Group this month argued for greater STEM skills. The employer association's chief executive, Innes Willox, says students undertaking university studies should focus on STEM subjects and skills.
He wrote: "If there was any advice I would give the wave of young people about to enter tertiary studies in the new year it would be to focus on employability skills and get the STEM qualifications new workplaces increasingly require."
Nobody doubts Australia needs more graduates with STEM skills. Or that STEM-related jobs will be among the fastest-growing occupations this decade and next. Or that our education system needs greater resources and focus on STEM subjects.
My concern is threefold. First, that we view STEM mostly as a discipline rather than a set of skills that every student should have. Second, that growing STEM hype attracts the wrong students to these subjects. And third, that the focus on STEM hurts other vital fields, such as the arts, and overlooks softer skills that are critical in the workplace.
Students should choose courses based on their strengths and interests. Taking STEM courses because it's a good career choice – and a skill that employers supposedly want more of – is pointless if you are not cut out for a career in these fields.
I have seen too many students over the years choose the wrong courses, to make other people happy. They end up with a job they hate, do not have the aptitude to succeed in their field and waste years in the wrong profession.
Often, their thinking relies on creativity, intuition and emotion, and is not particularly methodical, sequential or analytical. They are the last people you want building a bridge, writing software or doing laboratory research. But they still have fabulous skills.
I once worked at a prestigious global management consultancy. The firm was full of MBA graduates from Harvard and Stanford, engineering hotshots and others with STEM skills. The firm's star young consultant had a master's degree in ancient history.
Great firms have diverse workforces. They know the value of staff with different skills, perspectives and experiences. This diversity aids problem solving and drives innovation. Yet we want industry stacked with STEM graduates.
Moreover, as Industrial Revolution 4.0 takes hold, some STEM skills could be ripe for automation. Robots will eat tasks that require sequential thinking for breakfast, and struggle with those requiring creativity and empathy.
My guess is that the arts will be even more important in the era of automation and artificial intelligence – a reason why some argue the concept of STEM should be expanded to STEAM (to include the arts).
Some employers believe STEM skill are over-rated. Google's Project Aristotle, released last year, found the firm's best teams exhibit a range of soft skills. Top ideas often came from so-called B-teams comprised of people who were not always the smartest in the room, but excelled in team-based environments.
Google's Project Oxygen research in 2013 found STEM expertise was the last of eight traits in the company's top employees. The seven more important were soft skills: coaching, communicating, listening, possessing insights into others, being empathetic and supportive, critical thinking and problem solving, and an ability to make connections.
In this rush towards STEM subjects, will the focus on technical subjects equip students with soft skills that are hardest to acquire and most valuable in the workplace?
Will enough STEM courses provide students with the creativity, resilience and adaptability that will define successful careers over decades?
That is not to downplay the value of STEM or suggest that graduates can waltz through their career without an understanding of technology.
But rather than promote STEM mostly as specialised fields of study, education providers should embed STEM subjects into courses across campus.
For example, data analytics should be a compulsory subject in business degrees. Arts degrees could require students to take at least one or two subjects in STEM-related areas. Learning to write software code at school, often talked about, should be a foundation skill.
Also, imagine if universities taught students how to coach others, communicate, listen, be empathetic, excel in teams and adapt – through a few specialised subjects rather than as generic skills (which are often not acquired, or are an afterthought at universities).
We might have graduates that industry cannot get enough of and higher rates of innovation. And have more people who love their job – and excel in the era of automaton – because they followed their heart and their head into the labour market.
Tony Featherstone writes on Personal Finance specialising in Superannuation & SMSFs, Specialist Investments.