With business, technology and politics all changing at a rapid pace, the bar for success is constantly rising for young people entering the 21st century economy. This morning, top educators and employers convened at the Seaport Hotel in Boston to discuss how education is shaping tomorrow’s workforce and what needs to be done to prepare students for successful careers during Solomon McCown’s 26th SM& Presents panel.

Moderated by Helene Solomon, CEO of Solomon McCown, “HELP WANTED: Education 101 Meets Workforce 2.0” featured expert panelists including Keith Hovan, President & CEO of Southcoast Health System; Gloria Larson, President of Bentley University; Aimee Sprung, Manager of Civic Engagement at Microsoft; and Jeff Weiss, President of Lesley University.

Nick Donohue, President & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation set the table for the morning’s discussion, shedding light on the issue that less than half of Massachusetts high school students are graduating fully ready for college or a career. “Americans are aching for a change in education,” he said, encouraging communities, educators, school committees and civic leaders to work together in innovating teaching and learning to address inequities within our traditional education system.

In response, Solomon kicked off a lively discussion asking how the skills necessary for a student to be ready for the workforce have changed. While panelists agreed that having hard skills and knowledge about a certain industry is important, there needs to be more of an emphasis on adaptability, civic responsibility, and critical thinking – or “soft skills” – that prepare young people to navigate the changes they’ll encounter over long careers. “We need resilience…creativity and innovation,” said Hovan. He stressed that higher ed and businesses need to partner to understand “not only what we need today, but what we need five years from now, ten years from now. For me, it’s about teaching students to pivot and turn.”

Until about 15 years ago, arts and sciences degrees were seen as second class cousins” to getting a business degree, added Larson. But today, the hiring managers she speaks with ask Bentley students less about their business knowledge (which they know the students possess), and more about their liberal arts backgrounds, their double majors and service learning. “If you’re an accounting major, you have a double major in ethics and social responsibility…it speaks volumes about what is the new market choice.”

Education should be bringing companies and business in to help design curriculums and core competencies that will provide students with these skills and serve them well throughout their careers, said Weiss. “We’re on a path toward innovating within the academy…as opposed to teaching biology, why aren’t we developing the next set of techs, the next set of people who can analyze data, the next set of folks who look at genomics…Unless we’re out partnering inextricably with employers, planning adapting, thinking how we can help one another, we are preparing students, in highly obsolete ways.”

Governments can support collaborative efforts between business and higher ed through funding models that help under-served youth access these services and programs, added Sprung. “If we’re serious about increasing diversity…and accessing different kinds of people for our talent, we need to think about how we’re engaging students…There’s an entire pool of candidates that we’re not tapping into.” In New York, Microsoft recently started a Tech Jobs Academy program to connect young people with career opportunities.

Thank you to our panelists for a lively and insightful conversation, and thanks to all who attended. To see this morning’s conversation on Twitter, check out the hashtag #SMCPR.