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The future of skills and vocational education in the shifting employment and careers landscape

Cindy Rampersaud, Senior Vice President BTEC and Apprenticeships, Pearson

Against the backdrop of COVID the rate of change around us has accelerated – changes in technology, industries, careers, learning, lifestyles. And the role of education and learning will remain crucial as we continue to respond to change at an individual, community and wider economic level.   

We’re also looking at a period of considerable change within our own FE sector, with the FE White paper and Level 3 consultation, a package of initiatives supporting people back into work and into training – theKickstart scheme for example – and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee for adults.  

As these changes progress, we rightly need to flex and adapt. However, it’s also important to take a moment to reflect on what’s working well already and the successes we have within our existing vocational education provision.   

The continued importance of supporting key workers 

By shining a light on the importance of our key workers, the events of 2020 have served to remind us just how important the FE sector is to our society. It has been a national moment for recognising and celebrating our health and social care professionals, for example, who remain central in supporting our communities through the pandemic. Many of the heroic individuals we were clapping for each week this Spring will have taken a vocational qualification and studied at a Further Education College. 

The health and social care sector currently reports high volumes of hard-to-fill vacancies, as well as skills gaps among the existing workforce, with over 220,000 jobs currently available in the UK. Students taking health and social care qualifications are highly in demand, and our job to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to access careers in the sector (and other keyworker industries such as engineering and construction) is more important than ever.  

Responding to demand from new and transforming industries  

In recent times, we have seen a number of industries decline while newer sectors have sprung up or grown. FE and career focused education has always responded with a talent and skills strategy to support the evolving needs of employers, and we’ll need to be as nimble as ever to serve these emerging industries. Our BTECs, as an example, are over 30 years old, having flexed and adapted to changing times over three decades. 

This year we launched a new BTEC in Esports, a major step forward in supporting careers in the growing esports industry, projected to generate revenues of over £1 billion this year. Other shifts are being seen in retail, education, renewables, Agri-Tech, infrastructure to name but a few. 

The importance of choice for learners 

Vocational and technical skills will be crucial in supporting our economy in the post covid period – supporting both young people and adults with the learning and skills they need to enter new and evolving industries and careers.  

There needs to be the choice of qualifications and courses available which supply the skills that are required by employers – and in the UK we already have this with a number of effective pathways such as A levels, Technical and Vocational (including Pearson’s BTECs) and work-based provision, including Apprenticeships. The introduction of T Levels will add another level of occupational choice for 16-18-year olds.    

Multiple pathways offer choice to people of all ages to be prepared and supported for life and careers in a rapidly changing world. Currently 40% of young people post 16 choose the academic route offered by A levels, progressing to higher education. 

The remaining 60% chose a vocational or work-based pathway. We need to maintain the choice for the 60%, and many adults, between the early specialisation that T levels offer (training for a very specific job aged 16-18), and a broader career-focused option of vocational qualifications such as BTECs provides – up-to-date industry knowledge, skills and behaviours which open doors to a range of careers as well as access higher education and most importantly equips them with skills that are transferable in a changing world.  

Responding to the exponential rate of change in technological advancement 

The sector does need to focus its efforts to adapt to the rate of technological advancement.

I spoke about this in a Ted talk in 2018 on how we prepare young people for the ‘yet to be imagined future’:

The make-up of the workforce and careers is going to continue to change and evolve in the coming months and years with greater automation, a shift to digital enabled roles and growth, contraction and transformation happening across many business sectors.

All of this has a knock-on impact on the demand for skills and education. By the mid-2030s, up to 30% of all current jobs could be automatable, according to PWC. Furthermore, a recent CBI / McKinsey survey suggests that 9/10 of us will need to learn something new in the next year as part of our job – some of this will be light-touch, some informal, some formal and some more technical.   

To be successful in the future we will increasingly need to apply our learning to multiple situations – developing skills to help us to flex, adapt and prepare for the yet to be imagined future.

Soft skills are crucial in many careers, and easily transferable:

  • Teamwork
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Cultural awareness

These need to be embedded into learning and education now, and from early years onwards.    

Lifelong learning – access and progression 

Let’s also not forget the different support that adults, and those already in employment, need. The recent announcement by the Prime Minister of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a welcome one, with a renewed focus on adult education and recognising the importance of lifelong learning and career-focused education.  

Against a backdrop of rapid change, lifelong learning will be crucial in supporting both social and economic prosperity. New roles springing up will be a continuous trend – todays cloud engineer will most likely evolve into a new role in five years’ time.

We need to prepare for a future where multiple careers, portfolio careers, the global ecosystem, and greater co-existence of humans and computers will be the norm.  Options need to be easily accessible, available flexibly to fit in around other commitments, consider earlier experience, and allow for older learners to either take bitesize chunks of learning as and when they need them, or to build their knowledge and skills over time by having bitesize and stackable options.   

Embedding the right skills and knowledge in the educational journey 

As we think about education and learning for these differing learners, pursuing varied paths, we need to consider a range of fundamental elements for them all: 

  • The design of curriculum (partnering with employers/sector bodies to get this right)
  • The experience of learning encompassing online (including where and how to use VR and AR effectively)
  • The design of assessments (proctoring/assignments/technology enabled)
  • Access and progression points (including the facilitation of bitesize and continual learning)

These considerations are relevant across all routes – A Levels, T Levels, BTECs, Apprenticeships, and the broader range of provision required to meet the diverse needs of adults looking to reskill and upskill in a fast-paced economy. 

So continual transformation of education will be crucial as we prepare for the future; the increasing role of technology in learning, embedding the right skills in the educational journey and creating a culture of lifelong learning – it is these components that will help us to be flexible and adapt to whatever the future of work holds. 

Cindy Rampersaud, Senior Vice President BTEC and Apprenticeships, Pearson

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