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What does the future hold for skills?

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When businesses don’t invest in training up and developing the skills of their workforce, everybody loses. It means lower productivity and fewer opportunities to progress and climb the ladder. It means the ‘Great Resignation’ continuing and ‘levelling up’ stalling. But where is the UK currently at when it comes to adult reskilling? And, as important, what does the future hold and how do we get there?

The most recent report from the Learning and Work Institute provides a stark reminder of where we are. Employers across the UK are investing less and less in training. Their data analysis (from 2005 onwards) found a 28% decline in the amount of money being invested per employee in work-based training. 

Not only is the UK slipping behind in terms of employee investment, but the gap between the UK and Europe is getting wider too. Businesses in Europe now invest twice as much in training as businesses in the UK. 

From international competitiveness to productivity, the ongoing retention challenge to job satisfaction, a lack of investment in training has huge implications across each and every one of these areas. 

The Learning and Work Institute’s findings aren’t a one-off either. Recently, Emeritus – the global education technology company that provides online courses in collaboration with more than 60 world-class universities around the globe – revealed new analysis about adult skills gaps in The Times. It showed huge geographical disparities across the UK in the qualification levels of adults, with the data suggesting it would take more than a generation to close these gaps. In parts of the north of England, it would take more than 30 years for their level of adult skills to match London’s. 

I lead Emeritus’ work in the UK and Europe, and I speak with businesses daily about these challenges. For some, the challenge comes from cost pressures. For others, it’s a fear of the unknown – knowing that fast-paced technological and industry changes are coming, but not knowing how best to react and support their workforce. The eternal dichotomy is an acceptance that skills gaps exist, while investment in remedying this dwindles. 

While the pandemic curtailed training offerings for many businesses entirely, too many also cut their programmes back to the bare bones with tick-box short courses about health and safety replacing more in-depth programmes that genuinely upskill their employees. 

What does the future look like for skills?

While it’s easy to be despondent, there is cause for optimism about the future of reskilling. Last week, I hosted an event with Steve Suarez, the Global Head of Innovation, Global Functions at HSBC. He spoke passionately about why businesses must invest in employee training programmes. 

In part, he made the personal case for upskilling. He spoke about his own background at the bank, leading teams to create a culture of innovation across the bank’s 230,000 strong global workforce. Each of those individuals has the capacity to innovate and transform how they deliver in their roles. But to do this they need to love their job. Be engaged. Grow in their roles. The surest way to achieve this is to keep learning and developing. If people aren’t learning, the chances are they will move on to another role where they can.

But he also argued the employer case. Paraphrasing the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he reminded us that the context businesses operate in is constantly changing: ‘The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again’. 

To keep up with that level of pace, a major investment in upskilling is essential. As new processes are introduced to catch up with new technologies, or new sectors and industries emerge to tackle new threats and opportunities, businesses need their workforce to learn from the best and the brightest or they will fall behind and lose their competitive edge. 

It is expensive for businesses to lose great talent, and far cheaper to train and retain them. Businesses are always looking for innovation, and that comes from making your in-house experts even more curious and even more engaged. Training and adult skill development is the key route to making that happen.

How do we close in-work skills gaps? 

While businesses know the problem, and know that the future of the world of work requires investment in training and upskilling, the challenge is how we achieve this. 

The obvious answer is an investment in online training. The skills training landscape, however, has historically been challenging, often defined by long course lengths and low completion rates, which traditionally fall into two main camps – high cost for active learning (with instructors, peers and projects) or low cost for passive learning (videos and self-paced). According to Inside Higher Ed, these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) only achieve a completion rate of about 1 in 3. 

If that’s your only experience of online learning, it’s no surprise that online education could be deemed ineffective and overpriced. But new models do exist and a better way of learning can be accomplished with Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs). They add personal engagement between faculty and students, course customisation, mentoring and coaching, and career counselling. Courses are flexible and effective – most take about 40 hours to complete over 10 weeks, and achieve a 90% completion rate.

To deliver the scale and pace of change in upskilling that the UK needs, and that businesses like HSBC require, accessible and effective online learning like this is the only solution. The impact for businesses couldn’t be clearer – yes there are higher completion rates for staff, but really the impact comes from the high level of knowledge the employees completing these types of programmes retain and put into practice in their jobs. This makes this form of training meaningful for staff who want more investment in their career development while helping to close key skills gaps that a business has identified. 

Participants need to be part of a cohort that learns and develops together, not part of an anonymous online group of thousands, or tens of thousands. Two-way interaction in online seminar groups is essential too – that approach keeps you engaged and stops you simply dropping out when you can’t face watching another short video. 

From the work I’ve been doing at Emeritus, I know that online learning can provide an effective, accessible and affordable solution. It’s too costly for businesses to lose great talent. It’s too costly to lose your competitive edge to rivals who are training up their workforce at pace. It makes little business sense to turn your back on ever more accessible experts, and even less business sense to shrug your shoulders while your staff find it harder to deliver in their roles. The remedy to each of these is investment in the latest approaches to online training and development. If businesses don’t act, it’s businesses, and not just their employees, who lose out every time. 

By Anand Chopra-McGowan is the General Manager UK and Europe at Emeritus.

Emeritus is a global education technology company, committed to making high-quality education accessible and affordable to individuals, businesses, and governments around the world.

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