Future of skills

Future of skills

What skills will the country need as we move into the 2030s? What are the key challenges affecting our education and training sector?  What policies should we enact and how? How might these need to change in the light of different scenarios of the future?

SAMI has conducted several projects on the future of work and skills needs, so in this blogpost we have pulled together some of they key themes. Most studies of future skills needs are by advocates of some particular approach:  apprenticeships, short-course degrees, advanced technologies. For example NESTA have a manifesto for skills development. At SAMI we prefer to explore the challenges that sometimes difficult circumstances might present, and the opportunities in others.

However, there are some fairly clear trends and drivers of change which are likely to develop in most scenarios.

  • Digitalisation in every field. The pandemic accelerated trends in this area, but also highlighted some of the limitations and concerns. Working from home, online shopping, home schooling (“blended learning”) and remote medical consultations led to a rapid increase in digital skills across the country. We can expect many of these behaviours to continue.
  • Climate policy. A general global acceptance of the need to act on the climate crisis is emerging, with recent “net zero” targets. The “green economy” brings new skills requirements in everything from heat pump installation and home insulation to nuclear power plant development and offshore wind turbine construction. However, here on this spectrum the UK skills base ends up remains at the mercy of Government policy.
  • Health: The population is growing in size (at least for the time being) and ageing. People are suffering from more long-term and complex conditions. While smoking and alcohol consumption may be decreasing, diabetes, obesity, dementia and mental health issues are on the rise. The need for skills in health and social care will continue, with an increased emphasis on preventative care.

Less clear are some wider generic issues. These include

  • Economic growth, post-Covid recovery, economic policy
  • Geo-political disruption: Ukraine, China, Brexit
  • “Levelling up”, UK devolution, Scottish/NI independence
  • Impact of automation and AI – creating more jobs than they destroy?
  • Speed of the biotechnology revolution
  • Degree of social cohesion and social innovation

In one recent project we explored these uncertainties in a scenario cross based around the axes of:

  • “Economic approach”, an axis encompassing austerity and centralised decision-making at one end to investment-led, localised decision-making at the other.
  • “People-centric approach” with end-points ranging from “flexible and innovative” to “rigid and traditional”.

The team we were working with felt that currently we were in the Orange scenario. Effective skills policies in that case were felt to be:

  • Build an evidence base: to access centrally allocated funds, there is the need to clearly articulate regional skills priorities and input into national strategies. There has to be a good understanding of the labour market and the skills required, with a focus on young people.
  • Harness volunteers: the health and social care sector in particular could cover shortfalls in funding by involving the voluntary sector and family support in more flexible collaborative working. Peer networks more generally (eg for careers leaders and community-based training) should be encouraged. The “University of the Third Age” could be called upon to retrain the ageing population especially in digital skills.
  • Support entrepreneurship and SME growth – in this scenario there is a pool of under-employed people prepared to experiment with innovative ideas – these should be encouraged.
  • Build agility to respond – being flexible to pivot into new sectors; encourage the skills system (HE and FE) to become able to quickly respond to changes in the labour market; support apprenticeships and traineeships across all levels

In the most optimistic scenario – Grey – there is an opportunity to reinforce the drive for high-value jobs, focussing on R&D and  innovation and co-ordinating partners; and to improve access training, and address digital poverty and exclusion.

Conversely in the Blue scenario we would be appealing to employers to recognise it’s in their self-interest to invest in skills and for people later in life funding their own training as increasing retirement age means there is a greater need for retraining and upskilling.

We firmly believe that this approach of matching your policies to the environment you find yourself in is more effective than simply aiming for an ideal solution.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.

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