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Lifelong learning – skills for a sustainable future

David Phillips, MD City & Guilds and ILM

It is an undeniable fact that ongoing training and development throughout people’s working lives will be an essential cornerstone of creating a sustainable economic future in the years ahead. In fact, a report from the World Economic Forum states that by 2025 44% of skills that employees need to perform in their role will change, thanks to the speed of technological advances. That’s a heck of a lot of outdated skills that will require a brush up.

And it is no secret that our current adult education system just isn’t set up to meet the demand that is required. It isn’t simply the volume that is the issue, but the demands of a more flexible solution as we move away from a system that just deals in large qualifications to one where people will need to access much smaller pieces of learning far more frequently. People will need to pick up discrete skills in a more dynamic way and update their knowledge more frequently to stay relevant in their chosen fields.

Our recent Skills Index found that there is still a great deal of progress to be made in this area for workers of all ages, to ensure that their skills remain up to date and relevant in a rapidly changing employment landscape. We found that almost a third of workers had received no workplace training for at least 5 years, with 47% of those age 55+ most likely to say they have not received any training in that period.

We also found that almost two thirds (61%) of people were not confident that they had the skills they needed to succeed in the workplace in the next five years. However, when we asked who should pay for training only 6% thought it should be the individuals themselves.

When we polled employers, we found that only half of businesses (54%) felt that their organisation is able to recruit the skilled individuals they need. Whilst over half (56%) stated that they face some kind of barrier to meeting their skills and talent needs. However, when we asked how they intended to address this skills gap just two fifths (42%) say they plan to invest in training and development specifically to tackle skills gaps, a fifth (20%) plan to consider reskilling or moving staff from different departments and 14% say they plan to recruit or retrain older workers.

With the nature of training changing and people working in five decade careers with a need to upskill throughout, it’s clear that the underlying funding model may need to change as well. This is a future where individuals, employers and government all have a role to play in funding lifelong education and that will require cultural as well as systemic change. As our data shows, this is likely to involve a significant culture shift, a Government backed campaign may be needed to enable people and businesses to understand the huge return on investment that is possible if they invest in skills.

With the pandemic having spurred on governments and private enterprise to prioritise training and development, there is a golden opportunity right now to build on this momentum and implement training programmes that are designed to support ongoing learning throughout people’s careers.

While traditional training and courses will still be important to equip people with specialist or foundational skills, for many people undertaking periods of study mid-career this is not a viable model. Bite-size learning opportunities will be needed, offering speed and flexibility for learners. Adopting digital methods of delivering and assessing these training courses and better use of digital credentialling will further support flexibility and help to ensure widespread access to training across the UK.

One way to stimulate employer investment could be an expansion of existing schemes such as the apprenticeship levy potentially becoming a “skills levy” to include contributions from smaller employers which could help ensure that funding is available flexibly for a broad range of skills programmes.

For individuals, it may be a case of changing long ingrained attitudes, with people encouraged to take a greater role in funding their own training and having the benefits of doing so highlighted to them. Government have also announced plans which we welcome to broaden access to higher education loans to include more vocational courses, but we would encourage them to go further, making funding available throughout people’s careers for short bitesize training programmes at a variety of levels.

Flexibility will be vital as technological progress coupled with Net Zero ambitions continues to increase the pace at which new skills are in demand. Collaborating to share data and information on emerging trends can play a vital role in helping to plan ahead, but businesses will need to forge closer relationships with each other to achieve this, with just 20% of those surveyed saying that they already work with others in their industry to do so. Making this information widely and publicly available can help businesses to develop robust skills pipelines and ensure a sustainable future for themselves and their employees.

This proposed expansion and rethinking of training skills development will need to be managed in such a way that it remains clear to employers what skills workers possess. A clear, consistent language and framework to identify and describe skills will be important, helping to match people to jobs and highlighting where they need to pursue further professional development. As the current Skills Bill tracks through Parliament it will be vital that we get amendments to legislation around lifelong learning entitlements right.

Successfully implementing a culture of lifelong learning will require cooperation from government, industry and individuals, but the potential benefits are huge. Developing a workforce that can meet the needs of the country to ensure sustainable growth of key industries and create an economy that is balanced across a range of sectors and geographically across the country is not an option, it is essential for our future prosperity and well being.

Failing to instil this culture will have serious long-term consequences, with employers struggling to secure highly skilled staff, individuals facing the prospect of being unable to develop and advance their career, and government unable to deliver economic growth.

Rebuilding in the wake of Covid-19 particularly in the face of the unpredictable effects of Brexit, will require an openness to new approaches to learning, an innovative mindset and a spirit of cooperation.

David Phillips, MD City & Guilds and ILM

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