The global economy is currently undergoing a dramatic change. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, mobile supercomputing, and the internet of things are becoming more ubiquitous in our day to day lives.
As businesses adopt these new technologies at an exponential rate, economic analysts are heralding the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
While such innovation is the lynchpin of economic growth, there is rising apprehension about the disruption that these technologies may bring.
At the forefront of people’s concerns is the impact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have on the modern workforce and whether our education system is able to cope with such rapid change.
As with every industrial revolution, jobs will be lost to new technologies - the recent "Future of Jobs Report" by the World Economic Forum predicts that automation will displace 75 million jobs by 2022.
Many economists, politicians and think tanks have written extensively on the desperate need for us to safeguard those in job roles that are most vulnerable to redundancy.
Providing young people with the skills they need
The greatest fear is that we create a generation of workers who do not have the skills they need to re-enter a workforce dominated by technology.
However, the issue at hand is not that job roles will be made redundant. The modern workforce is truly unrecognisable from the first industrial revolution 250 years ago and yet we have record levels of employment across the developed world. Changing job roles are simply a product of innovation and, generally, a positive thing as jobs become less manual and more efficient.
Instead, it is the speed of change that we should be concerned about and our education system’s ability to provide young people with the skills they need to enter the workforce and the opportunity for workers to reskill as the needs of their employers and businesses shift at an unprecedented rate.
This means an education system that is comfortable with changing technology and at the forefront of thinking about the way that young people gain and use skills in the developing workplace.
Our FE Colleges could be seen as leaders in the use of technology for skills – we have seen the appetite for change within the workforce through the range of boundary testing and innovative projects we fund with colleges.
Bridging the digital skills divide
The challenge is most apparent when looking at digital skills in the UK. A recent report, "Leading at the Speed of Data" found that 71% of UK CEOs are worried about the low supply of workers with digital skills.
As industries have gone through a massive level of digitalisation, companies are finding that they do not have enough digitally-savvy employees to make the most of these advances in technology.
Accenture estimates that this digital skills gap is costing the UK economy £141 billion in GDP growth every year.
Retraining for disruption at industrial levels
Taking the retail industry as an example, the rise of e-commerce has dramatically altered the skills that a young person needs to enter the industry. Brick and mortar stores are being closed across the UK, reducing the number of people who need training in store management and sales skills.
In their place are logistics hubs and customer service centres which require entirely different training. While brick and mortar stores will always hold a place in the retail industry, the closure of 60,000 stores across the UK points to a worrying trend in the number of redundancies of retail workers and the desperate need for these workers to re-train.
What the education system needs to accommodate such disruption is investment in vocational technology that allows learners and teachers to focus on one of the basic reasons why we educate: preparing people of all ages for the workplace. Whether that’s when they are young, or as they upskill and reskill throughout their working lives.
We need to view learning and skills development as a continuum that can shift and adapt as businesses respond to changes in the global economy.
An education system that can innovatively use technology
The very same technologies that are set to cause the greatest disruption to the workforce also hold the key to ensuring that workers are able to re-skill quickly and effectively.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and virtual/augmented reality are already being used to greatly improve the quality and accessibility of training.
Take for example Fluence, a Ufi funded project that uses machine learning to track how effectively students learn from certain materials. By analysing where learners are failing to pick up new information, the software is able to identify the type of language that causes a learner to have issues.
Then, using a ‘language mapping’ software, the platform allows teachers to better understand individual learner needs. By making learning more efficient, we will allow workers to gain new skills at a speed that keeps pace with their industry’s changes.
Learning new skills while you work will also be important
An example of how this system can work is iDEA by the Duke of York Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award. The platform is free for people of all ages and allows users to learn new digital skills from any device with internet access.
Users learn skills like coding, digital marketing, graphic design, video game creation, with lessons taking learners from complete beginners to advanced levels of proficiency.
Each course can be finished in your own time and users are then given digital badges which allows them to keep track of their progress and attach to their CVs as verification of their new skills.
The solution to the displacement of millions of jobs is an education system that can innovatively use technology to match the needs of modern businesses.
These technologies already exist, what is required is more funding and investment for projects that make them accessible to those who need them most.
While the World Economic Forum warns that 75 million jobs will be made redundant by 2022, they also state that more than 133 million new roles will be created.
It is down to us all to ensure that our education system gives people the skills they need to fill those roles.
Rebecca Garrod-Waters, CEO of Ufi Charitable Trust