From education to employment

Delivering a 21st century education for a 21st century economy by Lord Kenneth Baker

In my view the Digital Revolution will destroy more jobs than it creates, unlike the Steam, Car and Computer Revolutions all of which created new jobs. The reasons are that it has so many manifestations that it will affect all industries and services – Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, robots in industry, the home and even the operating theatre, driverless cars, lorries and taxis, drones, clouds, mobile internet, 3D printers, nano technology and machine learning.

The Mercedes driverless lorry now undergoing testing in America threatens the livelihoods of the 3 million truck drivers and the 8 million providers of food bars and stopovers in the United States. A 3D printer in the Netherlands is building a metal footbridge over a canal – no hands, no concrete, no girders. Robots will increasingly replace many of the routine manufacturing processes of today. When you place an Amazon order the first time that a human hand is likely to have touched it is when the delivery man knocks on your door. But even his job is under threat by the invention of self-driving robots to deliver groceries within a three mile radius.

I am not alone in assessing the impact of these exciting and inevitable changes. The Bank of England has estimated that 15 million jobs are at risk from automation, and a report from Oxford in 2013 suggested that about 47% of total US employment is at risk over the next decade or two affecting routine and middle income jobs. Reports from McKinsey and Davos all talk of “the hollowing out of the Labour market” which means that highly qualified jobs are numerous and well-paid and low skilled jobs, e.g. in social care, are similarly numerous but low paid. The gap will be in the middle where skilled jobs used to be, particularly in manufacturing and general administration. Offices are already much smaller; your office is where your laptop is.

The nature of work will change. I expect that self-employment and part-time work will increase significantly. These workers will have a set of skills, experience and expert knowledge traded day-by-day and week-by-week working under contracts some even as short as an hour and in shifting teams. They will have a series of brief encounters with clients, suppliers, temporary colleagues and collaborators and that is likely to be their income stream. This is called the “gig economy” and it is already well-established in Britain.

The Chief Economist of The Bank of England envisages hundreds of thousands of micro businesses offering individually tailored products and services, personalised to the needs of customers, creating “a new artisan class” of self-employed people.

How should our education change to meet the demands of this Digital Revolution? When the American philosopher, author and motorbike mechanic, Matthew Crawford, delivered the Edge Annual Lecture in 2014, he said “when young people are making a tube frame chassis for a motor car suddenly trigonometry becomes very interesting – they see the point of all the other measurements and calculations”. In other words, knowledge is as necessary as ever, but it is not enough. Abstract knowledge and reasoning need to be connected to the real world through practical applications. A play assumes a certain meaning when read silently, more when it is read aloud, and more again when it is performed.

So young people should not leave school or college with just academic knowledge – to be work-ready they must have:

  • The ability to examine and solve problems
  • Experience of team working
  • The ability of make data-based decisions
  • Made and done things for real
  • Basic knowledge
  • Social skills
  • Confidence to talk and work with adults from outside school

So alongside the basic GCSE subjects of English, maths and science students should have technical experience. All primaries should be teaching coding and have 3D printers. At GCSE students should be able to choose between a computer language or design & technology, instead of a foreign language.

The Government is absolutely right in aiming to create many more apprenticeships. We should reintroduce the option of young apprenticeships at 14 where students can gain practical experience alongside their studies. The apprenticeship route should be just as important and valued as “3 A-Levels and a university”.

This will provide a great opportunity for FE Colleges. They could offer 14-18 year old courses as some are now doing with Career Colleges in catering & hospitality, construction, and digital technology. This should be a quite separate stream in a college and their post-18 activities should be focussed on providing students who can reach Levels 4, 5 and 6. That would lead FE colleges to become like the polytechnics of old.

By The Rt Hon Lord Baker of Dorking CH

Chair, Edge Foundation

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