FE is getting on the front foot to shape its future

20th April 2018 at 00:00
Amid so much system change, it’s hard to see beyond the here and now, but by ‘learning to speak the language of business’, the sector could answer the skill demands of 20 years’ time, says Kirstie Donnelly

We are currently undergoing some of the most fundamental changes to the professional and technical education system seen in a lifetime. It’s a radical overhaul that, if successfully applied and left to bed in, should see the system becoming more sustainable – and more connected to the needs of employers.

To debate these enormous changes and their effectiveness, City and Guilds Group and the Worshipful Company of Educators have this year been running a series of lectures. We have brought together esteemed panels of experts from across the education sector – universities, schools, FE, policymakers – as well as from business, to consider the changes and reflect on what needs to happen to ensure they work in practice.

At the third and final lecture, being held next week, we will be considering whether we think the current reforms of the skills system will genuinely deliver the skilled individuals this country needs, not just now, but in five, 10 and 20 years’ time.

But why start worrying about the future when we are already engulfed in the maelstrom of the current changes? Well, in the UK, I think it’s fair to say that, as educators, we don’t always have the best track record of planning for the future. New jobs or skill sets often arise before the education and training sector is ready to support them. And this lack of forward-thinking has often opened us up to criticism from the business sector, which has stated that we aren’t providing the skilled people it needs.

To become more future-focused, the very best thing we could do as educators would be to work more closely with employers, understand what they really want, build relationships with them and collaborate to deliver lifelong learning throughout their workforces.

It’s a very different way of working to what we have been used to in recent decades. But everyone in the education sector needs to learn to speak the language of business and think carefully about the fact that we are training the workforce of the medium-to-long-term future. After all, entrants to the workplace today might not be retiring for another 50 years.

And just as the professional and technical education sector is undergoing a big period of change, employers are also dealing with a dramatically different workplace compared with 10 or even five years ago. An increasingly mobile workforce is willing to move not only across the UK, but across the world. People could train in engineering, for example, and end up working anywhere from Durham to Dublin, or even Dubai. Employers will need to manage increasingly diverse workforces with teams in different countries and continents, and it’s so important that we understand the challenges that will be faced in managing these global teams, and then to adapt the training we offer accordingly.

Employers are also dealing for the first time with a multigenerational workforce; we are likely to see even greater age diversity ahead, as people are set to work until they are 70 and maybe beyond. With a career spanning this length of time, it’s likely that people will not only have many different jobs, but also several careers. Employers and educators will need to think about how they work together to continually retrain and reskill people, if they are to ensure that they have the required skills throughout their careers.

One of the most significant changes will be the effect of digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI). To put this impending change into context, by 2030, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, as many as 375 million workers, or roughly 14 per cent of the global workforce, may need to switch occupation as digitisation, automation and advances in AI disrupt the world of work.

That figure suggests a pretty staggering amount of new skills and retraining will be required. By arming ourselves with the knowledge of what may be required, before it is needed, we would better meet the expectations of the business world, and even surpass them. This would also ensure that our sector was as valued as it should be – and seen as the essential generator of highly skilled individuals that our workplaces and employers need.

City and Guilds Group and economic modellers Emsi will be launching a piece of research at the end of next month that clearly shows the FE sector will be a critical player in meeting the skills demands of the UK between now and 2024. We are going to be essential in delivering the workforce of the future – particularly as we head towards the uncertainty of Brexit, after which skills shortages are expected to grow even greater than they are now.

If we stay abreast of the changes that are coming and the likely effect on the workforce, we will be able to lead in the future rather than reacting to change once it’s happened – because, by then, it’s far too late.

Kirstie Donnelly is managing director of City and Guilds Group

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