Conor McLaughlin is a third-year student, majoring in Economics and Management. In addition to managing Futuristic Skills, Conor runs an online interview series called Agents of Change through which he shares insights from successful entrepreneurs and changemakers in the community.
Filling the gap in the skills market
At the start of 2017, I spoke to a lot of high school students, university students and parents about their thoughts on the current education system. Many of them said that they found the system focused too much on school subjects and the ATAR alone, instead of real-life skills. It was due to this overwhelming consensus that I realised how big a gap there was in the skills market for students. My business partner, David Castelanelli, and I conducted many interviews with school-based career counsellors and came to the same conclusion. There really wasn’t any service out there that focused on skills development for the future workplace, particularly for high school students. This essentially kicked off the idea for our start-up called Futuristic Skills for which we recently won the UWA IQ Student Start-Up of the Year Award.
The importance of soft skills
A lot of research has emerged in the past years focusing on the future of work. The Foundation for Young Australians and the World Economic Forum have each released many reports about the most important skills of the future. Interestingly, the reports all focus on soft skills rather than technical skills. While it’s difficult to predict the exact jobs of the future, it is possible to anticipate the types of soft skills that will be applicable to future jobs. Some of these skills include adaptability, critical thinking, modern literacy, enterprise skills, emotional intelligence, communication, problem-solving and cross-cultural awareness. These skills are some of the most important soft skills students need, and with such a strong skills basis it becomes easier to build up on technical skills on the job. Through our startup, we aim to upskill the next generation of workers and leaders by teaching them the most critical job skills of the future.
Creating Futuristic Skills and reaching the schools market
One of the other key drivers behind setting up Futuristic Skills was the enthusiasm from students, parents and teachers to have an application that enabled skills development. Before we started working on our business, we interviewed hundreds of students, parents and teachers to get their insight. We asked them to identify key things missing in the careers skills market and what they’d like to see developed to address the issue. Our initial business idea was completely different, so having this insight led to our better, final product. The overwhelming support for our application by users sparked an early interest and uptake by the schools.
Creating a start-up is a long and arduous process. I think a lot of people see entrepreneurship as very glamorous and fun. It definitely has been very enjoyable but it took a lot of late nights and cold calls to get to where we are now. Working with schools, in particular, can be tough because they are somewhat reluctant to start new programs. It took us many meetings with career coordinators to even set up trials of our business. However, the interest was certainly there as one of the main problems our application intends to address is the lack of ‘life skills’ taught at Australian high schools at the moment.
Our start-up is already being implemented in high schools across Western Australia and we are very grateful to UWA for the support. My experience volunteering with the McCusker Centre for Citizenship at UWA shaped my understanding of the importance of active citizenship. This is precisely what we are hoping to do through Futuristic Skills: to be active citizens in our community and provide opportunities that students like us wouldn’t otherwise receive. Our next focus is to help students disadvantaged either by distance, circumstance or opportunity. For this to happen we need to expand our online app side of the business. By expanding the app side, we will be able to reach far more students of more diverse backgrounds.
The role of Bloom
To say that Bloom was instrumental in our success is an understatement. We learned so much from the Bloom enterprise workshops before and during the start-up process. I have been involved in Bloom for over two years now, and the people there have been instrumental in teaching me so much about entrepreneurship and community engagement. Bloom provides workshops on many different topics such as brainstorming a business idea, pitching ideas, developing the technical skills required to start an online business and other key skills like networking, public speaking and teamwork.
The one thing I found of particular help was the ‘lean start-up’ model. Essentially this model states the importance of questioning potential users of your business before you create your product to increase popularity and buy-in; and to ensure your product addresses the customer needs first and foremost. Following this business model was crucial to the development of our web application.