James McLeod, VP of EMEA at Faethm AI

After a challenging year, it’s exciting to see signs of post-pandemic economic growth. A boom in job vacancies suggests that recovery is on the horizon – something all of us will welcome.

But sadly, it’s not all good news. While it’s positive to see change afoot, concurrent reports suggest the UK is hurtling towards a ‘catastrophic’ digital skills shortage, because the workforce as a whole lacks the skills to fulfil the requirements of these roles. This shortage of talent is nothing new, either. For some time news reports have indicated we’re on the brink of a skills crisis, and this highlights an ongoing issue – that we as a society are not set up for the future demands of work.

Our own analysis of the UK workforce using ONS data verifies these claims. It aimed to establish how prepared the UK is for the future of work, and how automating technology might impact jobs in the future. The results were quite striking, with our calculations suggesting the volume of work that could be automated in the UK by the end of this year is equivalent to 1.4 million full-time roles. That’s the equivalent of 4.8% of work currently undertaken across the country.

Findings from our study show the introduction of intelligent technologies such as machine learning is already leading to the automation of some tasks and augmenting our ability to complete others, transforming the requirements of certain job roles and making others redundant entirely. It was a trend that was already under way prior to the pandemic, but has only accelerated since, with businesses eager to drive efficiency and cost-savings amid economic uncertainty. Many businesses are now on the hunt for the talent to support in the deployment of new tech.

So when the government recently announced that it would introduce legislature to support vital reforms in adult education, and enable individuals to reskill for the future, it came as welcome news. But how does the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill really stack up when it comes to meeting the demands of the future of work?

What is the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill missing?

The government’s bill aims to deliver on the Prime Minister’s ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, and ensure every individual has the chance to gain the skills they need, when they need them, in order to secure ‘great jobs’.

The legislation outlines a variety of new policies to help achieve this, including local skills improvement plans, strengthened intervention powers for the education secretary, and flexible lifelong loans systems. It mandates that employers set out ‘employer-led standards’ for occupations, which in essence will require groups of employers to detail the knowledge, skills and behaviours required of roles to ensure the technical education and training provided is reflective of labour market skills and needs.

It’s encouraging to see a renewed focus on investing in equipping the workforce for the future. Without crucial government intervention, employers would likely face difficulty in finding the right talent to not only support the implementation of newly created technologies, but also ensure they deliver on their potential. However, the legislation crucially misses an important factor in its reskilling objectives: it fails to acknowledge that reskilling can no longer be considered a simple ‘one and done’ process going forward. We must change the way we think about skills entirely to meet the demands of the future of work.

Why we must stop thinking about skills as being ‘for life’

In an era marked by constant evolution of workplace technologies, there’s simply no such thing as a ‘Lifetime Skill’. Demand for skills rise and fall quicker than ever before, with certain job roles likely to come and go within the space of a few years as technologies rapidly move through the initial adoption phase and become mainstream. Where individuals could once expect to obtain a job for life and become specialised experts over the course of their career, the speed of technological development and the vast acceleration in skills cycles means this is no longer the case.

A recent McKinsey report for example suggested that more than 100 million workers in eight countries around the world would need to switch jobs by 2030, and recent World Economic Forum findings suggest nearly two-thirds of children starting school now will work in jobs that have not even been invented yet. With entirely new positions likely to be created to suit business demands and manage new technologies almost daily, we must start approaching skills and retraining as a constant in employees’ careers, rather than a one-off that will set them for life.

Skills development must be continuous

To meet the demands of the future of work, adaptability must be viewed as the most valuable skill for every employee. Each one should see their skillset as a constantly evolving toolbox that sits alongside technology. That means embracing the opportunities that innovation presents through being open-minded when it comes to reskilling, and viewing learning as a constant in their career. 

Similarly, public policy must focus on supporting individuals in developing human skills that won’t be replaced by automating technologies such as AI a few years down the track. Government initiatives also need to be based on the understanding that these skills aren’t set in stone, but actually something that will constantly grow and be added to throughout each individual’s career. Policy in particular should seek to position learning and development as a constant, repeatable process within the context of the new normal.

Equipping individuals with the right skills, at the right time

The government’s goal is to enable individuals to gain the skills they need, when they need them isn’t unrealistic. In fact, public reskilling policies will be vital to meet the demands of the future of work. However, if we are to achieve this goal, we must acknowledge and accept that reskilling won’t be a single event.

Every individual should be empowered to develop new, relevant and in-demand skills on a regular basis. Businesses play a critical role in facilitating this scenario, and must not only be incentivised to support the reskilling of employees throughout their careers, but also held accountable for their ability to retain, retrain and redeploy talent, and address skills shortages in doing so.

A truly future-proofed workforce in which humans are able to harness the benefits of technology, and use it to enhance their existing capabilities, rather than simply replace them, is a very real possibility. By changing the way we think about reskilling, businesses will be confident that they can retrain employees to deploy the right skillsets at the right time, and capitalise on the economic and social benefits innovative new technology has to offer.

James McLeod, VP of EMEA at Faethm AI

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