From education to employment

Employability in the 21st Century. Preparing College students for cloud working in the gig economy.

Jamie E Smith, Executive Chairman, C-Learning

Digital disruption. An often used phrase but for visible evidence of its impact take a look at the high street where names such as Blockbuster, Maplin and Toys R Us are no more. These businesses have been replaced by the likes of Netflix and Amazon and many more will likely follow.

In the commercial world a failure to innovate and adapt business models to be aligned to market forces is the common theme behind business decline and its the key theme behind the demise of many of the high street retailers. Companies like Netflix and Amazon have digitization by design in their business models, and it’s a very different business model to those born in the industrial age.

The world’s largest taxi firm owns no vehicles (UBER) and the world’s most significant digital media owner creates no content (Facebook). The digital economy changes traditional ownership models to one of consumption of a service, and that service lives in the cloud.

In thinking about preparing young people for employment, the implications of the digital economy are significant not least because what it means to be employed is undergoing radical change also.

This has profound implications for educators in Colleges thinking about the employability of their learners. How well equipped are College graduates today to enter the gig economy? Many of today’s learners will be the cloud workers of tomorrow.

The rise of the cloud worker. 


Fixed contracts and set work locations are increasingly becoming flexible contracts and location independent working using mobile technologies, creating what is sometimes referred to as the ‘gig economy’. It’s changing so fast that many including politicians, legislators and the Treasury are working hard to adapt to its implications.

A recent report from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy titled ‘The Characteristics of those in the Gig Economy’ highlighted that more than 2.8 million people in the UK now benefit from employment in this way and it’s growing fast, not least because the age profile of gig economy workers is younger.

On that point I’m with Whitney in that ‘I believe the children are indeed our future’, and to steal further from the lyrics of the late Miss Houston, we have a responsibility to ‘teach them well then let them lead the way.’

Careers Advisers should be confident in exploring the opportunities of being a cloud worker with a young person keen to pursue a technology enabled career, because it’s a distinct possibility that is what they will need to be.

If we were to think of education as a high street, how many of the shops would be aligned to the digital economy and equipped to enable cloud workers?

My contention is that education street is facing the same disruption as any high street and the criticality of adapting to the needs of the digital age cannot be overstated for College management teams. As businesses and countless research publications consistently report differing levels of skills deficits in College graduates, change is clearly needed.

This matters not least because the scale of digital disruption will only increase as cloud adoption becomes more embedded, along with automation and wider technology enabled innovation. A baseline level of digital literacy is now an obvious essential life skill in regard to employability and should be given comparable status to literacy and numeracy in our world of Schools, Colleges and Universities.

It is still rare to find evidence of this. In some ways this is not surprising as in the UK where Schools and Colleges are subjected to inspections by Ofsted, one of the unintended impacts can be behaviour modification geared towards gaining a favourable inspection result which in turn is driven by the inspection judgement criteria known as the Common Inspection Framework.

The Common Inspection Framework is arguably not as aligned to the skills needs of the digital age as perhaps it could be.

This raises the question of whether the Ofsted Common Inspection Framework is measuring what matters and whether it should evolve to make evidence of embedding digital literacy a much stronger assessment and judgement criteria.

It’s my contention that a fifth key judgement along the lines of ‘the effectiveness of digital coaching’ might create the urgency of action needed in education to better align to the digital economy. Were this to happen, it’s likely we would see the digital journey of our Schools and Colleges expedited significantly.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and work experience isn’t either.

For an indication of the potential disconnect between education and the evolving world of employment in the digital age take the example of work experience. As we see the rise of the cloud worker, requiring a student on work experience to be ‘based’ somewhere such as an office is at odds with emerging growth industries, especially in the digital technology sectors.

Yet often as the Executive Chairman of an IT company when offering work experience I am asked ‘where will they be based?’ My response of ‘anywhere’ is often not well received and you can imagine my expression when I am asked to complete paper forms. I stopped using paper around the same time as cassette tapes but I must confess my love of CDs is proving harder to give up. 

The reality is that a student on work experience now might be based anywhere that the client is, and the business providing the work experience may be operating in the same way.

Just as cloud technology is bringing about the end of distance, it’s also bringing about the end of place.

This has implications for the management of work experience (aside from your IT, Curriculum and Estates strategies). Will the average College be agile enough to adapt its work experience assessment and monitoring practices to align to high growth digital industries or will learners be denied access to opportunities because administrative and regulatory procedures prohibit it? Smart organisations adapt and evolve and those Colleges who embrace this will benefit from the opportunities it provides.

Recent research produced by Forrester called ‘Rethink Technology in the Age of the Cloud Worker’ highlights that one in four of today’s workers are already cloud workers. Additionally cloud based applications that are critical to business now stand at 53% of all applications, forecast to rise to above 80% by 2020. If cloud isn’t featuring highly in your digital strategy, you don’t have a digital strategy.

Additionally 77% of people in the research indicated a preference for technologies that provide the freedom to work flexibly. For Colleges the need to move to a cloud first strategy is now a top priority as is enabling progressive flexible working practices for both staff and learners, assuming that growth, learning success and financial stability matters.

Work is anywhere. 

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By the time students starting College this year graduate, most business applications will be cloud based and new recruits will expect to work, live and learn in a way that is consistent with the open cloud based world of anywhereism.

It’s not a new thing. In the 2018 IMF report ‘Measuring the Digital Economy’ it is clear that analysts have been reporting on the phenomenon of digitization since the start of the year 2000.

Nearly twenty years later, is education really prepared? How many Colleges provide a digital coaching service to their learners? Not many I would suggest.

For this to change quickly enough and in the way needed I suspect it may need Government level intervention. Case studies and free conferences will only have so much impact and often they can be echo chambers among friends. The people who need to attend such events are often the ones who don’t.

You spend more time waiting for technology to work than you spend on holiday.

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Research commissioned by SHARP in 2016 who surveyed more than 1000 staff in administrative roles discovered that on average they were spending more time waiting for slow and outdated technology to become operational than they spent on holiday each year. In total more than 21 days per person carrying a productivity cost of more than £2,100 per employee.

In the last College where I had responsibility for the digital infrastructure before we replaced the old computers (that could take ten minutes to boot up) we were incurring a productivity cost in excess of £300k a year. I replaced those devices with new Chromebook devices which boot up in less than five seconds and in doing so reduced the productivity cost from £300k a year to less than £4k a year in that organisation.

An accountant once implied to me that this was a not a ‘real’ saving as it was an ‘opportunity cost’ which reminded me of the old saying to never trust an accountant with a budget. Incidentally waiting for a printer was the second primary time waster in the research, which just adds weight to the need to go paperless also.

Cloud workers use ‘always on’ cloud based applications and generally see no reason to print things, and people entering College this year will highly likely be cloud workers in a way they cannot perhaps comprehend now. There is a responsibility on educators to prepare them for this future.

For leaders in education thinking about their infrastructure to support skills and knowledge acquisition, the rise of cloud technology presents huge opportunities to rethink our world of education enabling educators and learners to connect in smarter, more flexible, efficient and engaging ways.

I recently had the privilege to listen to a senior leader in a UK College explain how just three years ago, their success metrics were below national average, yet three years later they were all above.

He attributed this to the consistent application of cloud based technology that enabled people to work, learn and thrive in new ways. The data demonstrated clear causality between effective cloud usage and success.

Over the coming years this organisation will continue to reap the benefits of its innovation not just as measured by the likes of Ofsted, but in employer engagement as it becomes known for producing people who have the agile and flexible skills that the digital economy, and its cloud working, needs.

It should be noted however that it’s not about what cloud technology can do for you, but about what you will do with cloud technology. Given that we are firmly in the digital age, College learners need a baseline level of competency in a range of digital skills to be able to make the most of the opportunities in the connected world around them.

The status quo clearly isn’t a growth strategy and too often organisations continue to use technology that constrains development in education practice, not to mention incurring operational inefficiencies.

For educators looking to grow and succeed in the digital age a clear understanding of which technologies are best placed to support their plans, and specifically which cloud based technologies, is essential if they are to provide inspiring and engaging learning spaces.

By way of contrast to the UK where there is little direct guidance from Government on how to do this, in the United States the Office of Educational Technology provides a wealth of information and direction in regards to advice and guidance on digital infrastructure, including publications such as ‘Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning’. In providing this external national direction, many of the barriers to innovation in the adoption of cloud technology can be challenged and overcome.

The UK has no real equivalent to this. It is my contention that an equivalent to the Office of Educational Technology, if given the appropriate teeth, could have a positive impact on UK education in providing clear expectations and guidance in building digital infrastructure that supports cloud enabled learning in Schools and Colleges. If reinforced by Ofsted and wider agencies it could achieve the change required to adequately prepare young people to be cloud workers capable of thriving in the gig economy.

In the meantime we need to recognise and amplify those in education powering forward with the effective adoption of cloud technology with impact. The recent case study about Broadford Primary School, highlighting how it had moved data systems to cloud based solutions to reduce paper usage, reduce teacher workload and nurture collaboration and flexibility is one example of this and I would recommend seeking it out for a quick read. The results were impressive and every School and College could achieve the same.

Looking ahead the number of workers engaged in the gig economy will only increase. It is therefore essential that Colleges are producing cloud ready graduates, and that means providing both the digital infrastructure to enable it along with curriculum strategies that place digital at their core.

Jamie E Smith, Executive Chairman, C-Learning

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