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

James McLeod, VP EMEA - Faethm AI

We’ve been here before. It’s not the first time that a skills crisis has loomed on the horizon, and sadly recent reports that the UK is hurtling towards a ‘catastrophic’ digital skills shortage that could spell ‘disaster’ for our economy are part of a continuing trend. Such stories seemingly appear on a weekly basis, and to varying degrees are indicative of one recurring issue – that we as a society are not set up for the future demands of work.  

Our own studies certainly corroborate this view. We recently assessed the state of the UK workforce by analysing ONS data to establish how prepared the UK is for the future of work, and how automating technology might impact jobs in the future. We found that 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. 

These figures are indicative of a broad transition in the very nature of work which the pandemic had only served to accelerate. Technology already complements our capabilities as humans in so many ways, but the introduction of intelligent technologies such as machine learning will transform business beyond all recognition by automating countless tasks, and augmenting our ability to undertake others. 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? How will it actively equip adults to develop – and continue expanding on – the skills needed to work effectively alongside technology in the short and long term?  

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill at a glance – and what it’s 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 puts employers at the heart of post-16 skills by having them set out requirements of ‘employer-led standards’ for an occupation. In essence, this 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.  

There’s no such thing as a ‘Lifetime Skill’
Put simply, in the digital age there’s no such thing as a ‘Lifetime Skill’. Why? Because we’re living in an era marked by constant evolution of technologies with potential applications in the workplace. Demand for skills will rise and fall far more quickly 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 roles such as ‘VR Influencers’, ‘Nanomedicine Surgeons’ and ‘3D Lab Meat Scientists’ on the horizon, and 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 as a one-off that will set them for life.  

Viewing reskilling as an ongoing process 
Going forward, 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 challenges and opportunities that innovation presents through being open-minded when it comes to reskilling, and viewing learning as something that will be a constant in their career.   

Likewise, government initiatives must encourage employees to develop human skills that won’t be replaced by automating technologies such as AI a few years down the track. They 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.  

Gaining the right skills, at the right place, at the right time 
The government’s goal is to enable individuals to gain the skills they need, when they need them. This is not an insurmountable objective, but if we are to achieve it, it’s vital that we acknowledge and accept that reskilling won’t be a single event. 

Individuals need to be empowered to reskill on a regular basis to meet the demands of the workforce, and businesses need to be guaranteed access to the skills they need to capitalise on innovation. Fears over future redundancies and growing skills gaps can be dispelled provided the UK concentrates on developing 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. 

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