A report released by the CBI in October laid out a stark figure: by 2030 nine out of 10 British workers will need new skills to survive in the jobs market. It came with an equally clear warning, from CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn, that “a failure to act will leave businesses facing skills shortages and workers facing long-term unemployment”.
Upskilling, or reskilling, are two of those 21st terms that have the effect of simplifying something that can actually be a prohibitively difficult thing to do. Tech comes so naturally to some people, especially younger ‘digital natives’, that adopting and embracing change happens automatically, even unconsciously. But that’s not always the case.
Every innovation in digital tech puts dazzling new tools into the hands of the user, beguiling the senses with what can be done with seemingly so little. So much so that it’s easy to get swept up in the rapid torrents of change, and forget that for all the excitement, for some it feels more like drowning.
Consumer-friendly gadgets and apps are by their very nature simple to use. Developers go out of their way to offer tools to users which, paradoxically, play down the power and genius behind the UI, for the sake of keeping things as simple and instant as possible.
While this is perfect for the consumer market – and necessary – the impression you get from using most modern apps and gadgets is that the tech itself is simple, and requires only basic skills. In reality a huge gulf is emerging between what’s out there for consumers, and the sort of tech that professionals are using.
Take photography. Standard photo editing software on out-of-the-box operating systems, and especially on apps such as Instagram, is necessarily a drastically simplified version of what professionals are using. Instagram filters are quick and fun because they have to be. But compare that with the power at your hands with Photoshop and Lightroom, and you see that there is just no comparison.
The difference is night and day. And nowhere is this more apparent than in a professional setting. The more time goes on and the more advanced professional tools become, the higher the chance of some people being left in the dark. Keeping up with the tech can mean keeping your job.
It’s already the case that most professions and sectors of the economy have been if not totally revolutionised by the introduction of digital tech systems, significantly disrupted by them. Eventually there will hardly be a working life that hasn’t been touched by technology, in some form or another. As the CBI report makes clear, “Virtually every job will change – some incrementally, some radically”.
The UK government’s own paper on the issue of future skills, No Longer Optional: Employer Demand for Digital Skills, makes clear the extent of the coming change, which far from being confined to traditional IT-heavy jobs, “will be seen even in well-established fields like marketing. For example, database and analytics skills are now required for marketing analyst positions. Possession of in-demand digital skills will help job seekers adapt as the job market changes”.
So what could and should people be doing about this now? For undergraduates and students currently in their courses, there is an even bigger issue pressing – the state of the jobs market they’ll be facing when they graduate next year, given the dramatic events of 2020. But far from distracting from the question of skills, the Covid crisis and its knock-on effects should be an extra incentive for students to gain a broader range of digital skills now, and be flexible about possible careers later on.
For those already out there in the world of work, reskilling or even fully retraining, is much easier said than done. It takes the luxury of having enough resources behind you to take the time out to go back to college, which many people, especially those on lower-income jobs, simply don’t have.
There are already encouraging signs that the issue is at least being recognised at national levels. In September the UK government unveiled a raft of initiatives including the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ program designed to help working people to boost their qualifications, and a new loan scheme to enable people to join training courses while they’re in work.
Not without controversy, Covid has drastically changed the landscape of learning in the short term, with many universities switching to purely online teaching. History shows that temporary solutions to crises can lead to permanent paradigm shifts in the way things are done, and education is likely to be one of those areas that are changed forever, towards technology-enabled learning.
Indeed the UK Trades Union Council (TUC), as part of a list of recommendations to government in light of Covid, suggested that the crisis could be turned into an opportunity, “using the time that people are outside the workplace to invest in the training we know we need to fill skills shortages, raise productivity and help tackle regional inequalities across the UK”.
This only adds to the urgency of the situation for those who will need to upskill, or completely retrain for the future. For those who have been out of education for a long time, there might well be a lot of foundational work and training to do before they can even attend the classes or training courses the need to get ahead.
But they are not alone. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in January, David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The good news is that the education, training and skills offer from colleges is better than ever and more employers are now working closely in long-term partnership with their local college.”
As part of the Strategic College Improvement Fund initiative, the infrastructure surrounding further education and the provision of vocational skills is getting a revamp. The National Careers Service ‘Skills Toolkit’ provides a wealth of information and resources, from where to gain basic qualifications to how to advance your skills to a higher level.
But whichever way you look at it, a future jobs market in which digital skills are key is understandably a daunting prospect for many, for various and complex reasons.
With this in mind, perhaps we all need to rethink the way we do things. Governments, regional and national authorities, influential economic bodies and agencies, industry leaders all have a stake in the future and an incentive to see under-skilled workforces brought up to scratch.
And so do those of us whose businesses revolve around the student market – perhaps in future we need to broaden our definition of learning to include upskilling for working people of all ages, not just younger people gaining academic qualifications.
We can’t change the fact that upskilling is going to be necessary for people in all sectors of the economy, nor that this is going to involve some tough decisions. But we can all provide the means for people to prepare themselves to embrace new challenges and learn the skills needed to face them. We owe it to the next generation, and ourselves, to get this right.