Educators and employers need to work more closely together if workers are to thrive in a new technological era, writes David Willett

Despite media rhetoric about the threat of globalisation to British jobs, many forward-looking experts believe the next wave of disruption won’t come from overseas – the relentless pace of automation is likely to make many well-established jobs obsolete.

In an uncertain economic climate, it’s understandable that this sort of disruption is met with trepidation. But if deployed correctly, technology has been proven to boost productivity, create new employment opportunities for digital skills and enable human talent to flourish. While automation jeopardises predictable physical work, data collection and processing, the application of expertise to make decisions will become increasingly important, as will people management skills and creativity.

Consultancy firm PwC recently went one step further, suggesting that we should treat automation as an opportunity to establish a nationwide transformation programme to help new and existing workers to build the higher skills that will be needed in future, through the creation of new training and apprenticeship schemes.

The role of education

The education sector has a crucial role in facilitating change, and many believe that all educators – from primary school to university – play a part in equipping employees with the skills to match the demands of this changing job market. 

Some experts assert that, rather than encouraging the development of narrow skillsets, the education sector needs to facilitate the development of broader skillsets that make workers more adaptable to changing environments. In a new employment market, individuals will need to be able to transition between skills and to hold and develop new careers as opportunities come and go. This calls for agility and flexibility, which are perhaps not currently prioritised by some educators.

There has been a recent shift from traditional theory-based learning to more flexible and independent practice-based learning. And while building knowledge through traditional methods still has its place, it’s vital that educators now fundamentally rethink their provision to meet these new demands for high-level, practical skills.

Distance learning

At The Open University, we believe that digital learning is the key to developing these attributes, paving the way for practical and independent learning. More importantly, the skills and knowledge acquired in education must bring tangible benefits to students and their current, or future, employer. Distance-learning students gain the skills required to rise to challenges and see them through, prioritise tasks and manage their time. They apply learning directly to their own context, and are able to learn the independent, critical-thinking skills that are crucial to this new, automated world of work.

Work-based training

The duty of educators to create a new generation of skilled workers must be mirrored by a commitment to continued development in the workplace. Existing employees must have access to training, and be given impetus to develop better or new skills by motivated employers that invest in, and commit to, robust training programmes.

Organisations that embrace work-based learning are reaping the benefits. Our recently commissioned report, The Work-Based Learning Dividend, revealed that these employers are three times more likely to see improved efficiency, and five times more likely to report increased productivity and agility – a clear indication that this method of training pays dividends.

Organisations that make smart investments in their talent can boost profit, productivity and growth. This is why forward-thinking leaders should think about the short, medium and long-term talent landscape and how work-based learning, such as degree apprenticeships, offer their organisation a unique opportunity to develop, nurture and grow a more qualified workforce, aligned to their future strategy.

Why collaboration is the answer

The disconnect between traditional education and newer methods of learning is clear. This gap needs to be closed to allow students to develop the skills they need to thrive in an uncertain and ever-changing workspace.

Lessons may be learned from organisations prioritising in-work training and those with innovative ways to encourage staff towards professional development and new skills. Traditional schools, colleges and universities must look to their distance-learning counterparts for ways to drive independent, empowered study, speeding up the path to productivity.

Collaboration is more critical than ever; rather than innovating in silo, we believe that educators and organisations must break down competitive barriers and be willing to share ideas to benefit both workers and employers.

David Willett is a director at The Open University