Technology is changing so quickly that skills could be outdated before college courses are complete, underscoring the need for ‘learning while earning’, writes David Coyne of the Centre for Work-based Learning.
With technology changing rapidly and the economy undergoing rapid transformation due to the fourth industrial revolution, having a skilled workforce – with relevant and up-to-date expertise – is more important now than ever before.
Just as the 18th century Industrial Revolution saw the face of Scotland change as people moved from working the land in rural areas to factories in fast-growing urban centres, so this 21st century revolution is impacting the whole make-up of the economy and therefore the type of skills required.
As technology makes the world increasingly globalised, employers are becoming more sophisticated about the type of people they are looking for to fill roles to build and maintain a competitive advantage. And Scotland as a country has to have an advantage on the world stage to continue to grow and prosper.
People of all ages are now expected to be ready to gain new skills and be flexible in their approach to work and the jobs they do. Effective and relevant education and continuous on-the-job ‘learning while earning’ are therefore vital.
Because of the fast-paced world in which we all live, there is a danger that what we learn while at school, college or university, will be superseded by technology before courses are even complete.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that companies had switchboard operators and typing pools – functions that are now obsolete largely due to technological innovation. Many other ‘traditional’ roles will vanish in the years to come and this change is happening at an unprecedented speed.
These are challenges we must face up to now, not issues that can be dismissed as concerns to be dealt with further down the line. That’s why educators and employers must work together, along with policy makers, to ensure future generations have skills fit for the modern world – and the ability to quickly adapt to change in the workplace as required.
We at the Centre for Work-based Learning – the national organisation committed to driving the cultural change needed to create a larger demand for such learning, including apprenticeships, in Scotland – must lead the way in encouraging collaboration between teachers and businesses.
Meeting current and future challenges through collaboration was one of the main points of discussion at our fifth annual symposium, with the theme A Human Future. This brought together a host of international speakers, including employers, academics and educational institutions from a variety of industries.
The symposium addressed the fact that Scotland, and the UK as a whole, is already suffering from a skills gap with more vacancies being left unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the right qualities for the positions on offer. The Open University’s 2018 Business Barometer estimated the direct cost of skills shortages to the UK economy to be £6.3 billion a year, and whilst we have made huge impacts on the levels of youth unemployment since the end of the recession, there are still young people struggling to get a start to a career.
It’s not just changing technology that is leading to skills challenges, there are other contributors too, such as Brexit. Some significant industries in Scotland, for example, hospitality, are already seeing a drop in the number of people from overseas applying for jobs.
They are therefore struggling to recruit for some positions and this situation has emerged even before we know the exact outcome of Brexit.
While the future cannot be predicted, and we must live with uncertainty, we need to strive to give people the skills that are in demand from business. We need to encourage policy makers, educators, employers and politicians to work together to ensure students are being taught how to apply problem solving skills in real-life situations. Students themselves must be involved in the design, creation and development of training. And greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing situations and environments where skills can be practiced and improved outside the classroom.
It was agreed at the symposium that for collaboration to be successful, more investment is needed in meta skills – general and reusable skills that can be applied broadly to a wide set of problems or used to acquire more specific skills – to develop critical and creative thinking.
Such meta skills and what we call ‘adaptive resilience’ can be developed through work-based learning to build the knowledge required to try to pre-empt change, rather than wait for it to happen.
This need for flexibility and resilience that can be developed through successful collaboration ties into another big theme that emerged from the symposium around change and adaptation – something that work-based learning can also encourage.
Work-based learning, delivered through apprenticeships, can help businesses manage change and be ready to react to shifts in the economy by ensuring their employees are receiving relevant and timely on-the-job training.
Businesses should be looking for a split between formal education, on-the-job experience and social learning that is tailored to meet the requirements of individual employees and the future needs of the company.
For example, it has been realised that skills developed in the oil and gas industry are transferable to Scotland’s growing renewable energy sector and a lot of work by the government and the private sector has gone into making this happen.
What we should avoid thinking is that there is some sort of ‘quick fix’ to solving the problem of the skills gap. We need to all work together to ensure that academia and business are on the same page when it comes to priorities for educating and training the current workforce, as well as people who will be called on to fill vital positions in the future.
Only by collaborating can we ensure we are ready to change and be in a position to adopt new skills to ensure Scotland remains a competitive nation, with a strong economy, for generations to come.
David Coyne is programme director at the Centre for Work-based Learning