From education to employment

Urgent action needed to ensure workers of the future essential problem-solving and critical thinking skills

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The Skills Imperative 2035: What will work look like in 2035?

A review of recent research and thought leadership pieces on future employment skills suggests problem-solving, critical thinking and communication will become increasingly essential in the next 15 years as technology becomes more embedded in the workforce.

New technologies, coupled with major demographic and environmental changes, are predicted to transform employment over the coming decades.

These effects are forecast to have a huge impact on the role of workers in the labour market in the next 10 to 15 years and beyond, both in terms of the jobs that will be available and the skills needed to do them. Failure to develop the skills base of the workforce could have significant effects including underemployment and social issues.

To investigate this, NFER, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has looked at what the published literature tells us about how the world of work is changing and what this means for the likely demand and supply of essential employment skills up until the year 2035.

The review is the first of a series of reports from a five-year research programme which will project the essential skills needs of employers and their likely supply by 2035, identify where the skills gaps are likely to be, and establish what the implications are for the education system (including how to target support at the groups most vulnerable to the impact of the transformation of the labour market).

The literature reviewed highlights:

  • Workers with low levels of education or in low-skilled/routine tasks continue to be at greatest risk from automation, particularly in areas such as production, manufacturing and administration. However, artificial intelligence will also impact higher skilled jobs.
  • The importance of human reasoning and interaction in expected growth areas (such as health, social care and education) as well as the importance of those essential skills in areas more typically associated with the future, such as digital, technological and green industries.
  • The urgency of action needed to ensure future skills supply and employability, given that around 1.5% of the manufacturing workforce in the EU has already been displaced by technology (Oxford Economics, 2019) and 22 per cent of current workforce activities across the EU could be automated by 2030 (Smit et al. 2020).
  • The pandemic has accelerated the pace of digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) and exacerbated labour market inequalities, again underlining the need for action.
  • Problem solving/decision making, critical thinking/analysis, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation are transferable skills which will be in high demand in the next 15 years and beyond.

Jude Hillary, the Principal Investigator for the research Programme and the Co-Head of UK Policy and Practice at NFER said: 

 “A long term strategic plan is needed to support the development of these skills through the education system and other mechanisms to ensure that people can work and flourish in their jobs. 

“This needs to be based on practical insights and evidence to inform planning on how the future demand for essential employment skills will be met.”

Cheryl Lloyd, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“When it comes to employment skills, the evidence reviewed in this study identifies problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills as being critical in the future labour market. But it’s also clear that we lack a plan for how to systematically equip people with those skills. That’s why the NFER’s Skills Imperative 2035 programme is so essential – we need to address these questions about education, skills and work to ensure that all young people have the knowledge and skills they need to thrive.”

The Skills Imperative 2035: Essential skills for tomorrow’s workforce, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, sees NFER and its co-investigators working with employers, policy makers, and education leaders to address these pressing issues about education, skills and work.

Jude Hillary will be working with Professor Andy Dickerson and Professor Steven McIntosh from the University of Sheffield, Professor Rob Wilson from the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick University, Cambridge Econometrics, Kantar Public, the Learning and Work Institute and Professor Bryony Hoskins from the University of Roehampton.

Sector Response

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The findings of this research chime with what NEU members report, and with the findings of the recent Independent Assessment Commission (IAC). The consensus established by the IAC found that a tired, outdated, oversized curriculum leaves little opportunity for the development of the types of skills this NFER research has highlighted will be important for future life and work.

“The OECD reports, along with plentiful other research evidence, that England is an outlier internationally in this sense and only moving further in the wrong direction. When assessment is entirely via written exam then of course teaching and learning has to focus on retention and regurgitation of knowledge at the expense of other important things, including the development of essential skills.

“The research highlights that to help current and future students flourish in the 21st century, England must change its approach to assessment and qualifications. If no change to assessment is made, these problems will persist.

“If assessment were more varied, to ensure it considered more than just how much you can remember, the curriculum could be improved to be more diverse and relevant. The IAC’s New ERA vision and principles give a framework for this: one which values oracy and other assessment methods beyond just written exams. A national conversation to improve assessment in this way is needed urgently.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“This research provides more evidence of the need for a review of the current curriculum. While schools and colleges work very hard to encourage problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills, they are doing so despite rather than because of government policy.

“The government’s programme of GCSE reform has resulted in courses which rely heavily on memorisation for a large set of terminal exams, while the performance measures it uses to judge schools are overly-focused on a suite of traditional academic subjects.

“This has resulted in disciplines such as creative arts subjects and design and technology, which promote creativity and innovation, being pushed to the edges of the curriculum. Furthermore, the school timetable is bulging at the seams trying to cover all the curriculum content.

“In our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, we have proposed the establishment of a curriculum review body to determine a core national curriculum, focused on a relatively small number of carefully sequenced key concepts, with time and space around the core curriculum for all schools to develop their own local curricula.

“We have also proposed a reduction in the burden of assessment at 16. Taken together, these proposals would allow for fresh thinking on what knowledge and skills will be needed for the future, and timetables which are more able to ensure the curriculum is deliverable and meets the needs of all students.”

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