With business needs constantly changing and growing, we must help learners keep up with the skills and training needed to succeed in the workplace of the future, writes Jo Faragher.
According to business consultancy McKinsey & Company, almost a quarter of jobs will be disrupted in some way in the next five years, and one in 16 workers may have to switch occupations by 2030. For further education and skills providers trying to address the needs of employers and keep ahead of the labour market, change has absolutely become the new normal.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can increasingly fulfil many tasks that might have been taught at a college or training provider; there is a backdrop of economic uncertainty; and at the same time corporate investment in training has gone down, often leaving FE and skills providers to fill the gap. “The pandemic wasn’t the start of these challenges, the cracks were already there,” says Olly Newton, executive director of The Edge Foundation, an organisation promoting work-ready skills for young people. “But it did make existing problems and divides even worse, such as equality and access to technology.”
The Edge Foundation’s 2023 Skills Shortages Bulletin found that 34 per cent of Britons want to change careers, yet only 16 per cent know how their skills might be useful in another career. When it comes to planning curricula for the next five years and beyond, FE and skills settings must consider not only the skills needs of young people entering the workforce for the first time, but how they support local adults already in the workplace to acquire skills for the jobs of the future.
Wojciech Ilowski, industry operations leader at insurance company Marsh, part of Marsh McLennan, and trustee of the board of Education and Training Foundation (ETF), believes the gap between what curricula provide and what employers need is widening. “We’re seeing a fragmentation of specialisms where more niche specialisms attract higher salaries, but also need the right soft skills and mindset,” he explains. “These are the conversations we’re having now as a business.”
It’s no longer just about businesses trying to attract the right technical skills. Stakeholders are scrutinising what they do from a social value or equity perspective, so this is another area against which they will benchmark potential employees.
“The challenge is, who will catalyse interaction between further education and industry? It’s not always a process that happens organically,” he adds. Marsh UK has developed a number of relationships with providers, including New City College (NCC) based in East London. NCC will form one of the three schools and colleges that Marsh will be working with as part of its formalised education strategy. This three-year contractual partnership will see them work together to develop local talent for a framework of roles, while offering skills-based volunteering for Marsh colleagues.
Ilowski says formalising the relationship with support from the leadership of both organisations demonstrates a commitment to achieving mutual objectives when it comes to attracting young talent with relevant mindset and skills. “Yes, there is benevolence,” he says, “but that’s not scalable. We want to create a blueprint that can be applied to other organisations.”
Judith Quinn, vice-principal of Sunderland College, says that, while planning has become more challenging, being upfront about this with employers helps. “Our curriculum planning has always been future-focused, and we’ve got to be sure we’re giving our students the right skills and characteristics to be successful,” she says.
The college is part of the wider Education Partnership North East group of colleges, so works within local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) and adapts its emphasis slightly depending on the particular needs of each geographical area. “We have to consider the social and demographic characteristics of our region too, so we make sure it’s a priority that we support people who are looking to reskill, and run adult skills bootcamps for this purpose,” she adds. Fostering a cross-discipline, lively employer advisory board is crucial, she explains, as letting these relationships slip can become a potential point of failure.
Health and social care is one of Sunderland’s largest curriculum areas, with a specific employer advisory group and partnerships with local authorities, charities and the NHS. Cohorts in health and social care learn not just technical skills but crucial behavioural skills, explains Quinn. “We’re not just teaching bespoke technical skills, but how to demonstrate, for example, empathy or resilience while dealing with a patient. Learners narrate what they’re doing as they go so it’s very much built in, and we also embed project learning, which builds those higher-order skills such as leadership, critical thinking and teamwork,” she adds.
When looking towards the skills needs of the future, it is these ‘transversal’ or transferable skills (see What are transversal skills?) that should be an essential ingredient across all disciplines, alongside those all-important digital skills that are part of every job now, not just those in technology-focused roles.
“Nobody has a crystal ball and labour market predictions can turn out to be wrong, but we can be proactive,” adds Newton. “Some things such as technology are a safe bet. It’s all about ‘high tech and high touch’ so, yes, we will need digital skills, but also those human skills such as empathy in areas such as health and social care.” It’s how settings weave these skills areas into the wider curriculum that will make all the difference.
“It’s a combination of having a flexible, relevant curriculum that can be adapted for new issues and content needs, and also having a steer on those transversal skills such as communication and creativity,” says Dr Paul Tully FSET, associate director membership and business growth at ETF. Embedding these skills requires re-thinking curriculum design so that content and skills can be interleaved throughout the learner’s study experience.
Importantly, it is the contextualisation of these skills within a familiar content setting or topic that does most to help learners acquire them. This re-working of the curriculum, he adds, can be complemented with standalone workshops and other skills-focused sessions that learners can dip into to reinforce their use.
ETF’s new leadership standards framework incorporates a need for teaching staff and leaders to consider issues such as equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and sustainability in the classroom. There’s also an increasing emphasis on creating communities of practice so teachers can share how they’re building future skills development into what they do. “People in this sector enjoy sharing and dialogue; they are mutually supportive,” adds Tully. “This will add resilience to the sector, create empowering conversations and connect national policy with local issues.”
Sustainability and climate change issues are not just discussions for facilities and estate managers – they also belong in the future skills conversation. Across campuses at the Bedford College Group, for example, there are a number of initiatives underway to become carbon-neutral, including changing cladding around buildings. But there are also efforts to embed sustainability considerations into the curriculum as part of the group’s strategic plan, says Em Lowe, deputy chief executive. “We’re working with employers on how we might deliver those skills – for example, how modern methods of construction can feed into sustainable housebuilding in the future,” she explains.
Sunderland College is also beginning to embed sustainability into the curriculum, says Quinn. “Teaching staff know that it’s not just about the academic stuff any more,” she adds, “and we know the success the students can have if they marry those technical skills with the transferable ones.”
Each student has a ‘future-ready activity’ built into their academic year, which could include a masterclass with an employer or a discussion session on the future of their industry sector. It can feel as though the pace of change is faster than providers would like, concludes Quinn, but it’s a challenge she and her team are prepared to face head on. “It’s too important not to get right,” she says.
Because the future of work is so unpredictable, it can be hard for providers to plan what skills learners will need, as in many cases such roles may not even exist yet. That’s why there’s a growing push to support them to acquire ‘transversal skills’, or skills that they will be able to use in a wide variety of situations in life and work. Transversal refers to the way such skills would cut across different tasks and job roles, so are useful if learners change jobs or employers.
These skills have historically been known as ‘soft’ or ‘transferrable’ because they are not specific to a particular sector or role. The OECD’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 report advocates that, in addition to these interpersonal skills, learners acquire three “transformative competencies” to meet the challenges of a changing world:
By doing so, the OECD claims, learners “feel that they can help shape a world where wellbeing and sustainability – for themselves, for others and for the planet – is achievable”.
Jo Faragher is a freelance journalist with a strong background in education (inTuition edition: Winter 23/24)
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