Tired of futurology? You're not the only one

The world is changing, but strong partnerships can make sure the economy is ready, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Strong partnerships with colleges can help industry prepare for whatever the future may hold, writes David Hughes from the AoC

I hate to sound grumpy, but is anyone else getting a bit fed up with the number of conferences that include a clever, tech-rich presentation about the future? You know the ones I mean. They have all sorts of clever graphics and videos to set out scary statistics about the gazillions of jobs that will no longer exist and megamillions of new ones that we cannot even imagine.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I appreciate that the world is changing and that the labour market and jobs are very much not immune to that. I also appreciate that the big megatrends of technological, demographic and attitudinal changes and the increasing global economy we operate in all have profound implications for education. On a good day, when I am feeling generous, I can even get interested in the overall predictions about jobs going and new ones coming and about the different sets of skills people will need to be able to stay relevant in the labour market.

Read more: Need to know: What is the fourth industrial revolution?

Background: Will the future be of robot teachers? Or teacher robots?

Opinion: 'Education system not focused on future careers'

'Futurology' let loose

I think, though, that I probably go to too many conferences (mainly to speak, so I shouldn’t complain), advisory groups and consultation meetings, because it was with a slight feeling of world-weariness that I accepted the invitation to be part of the chancellor’s Financial Services Skills Taskforce. I was worried that this would be more "futurology" let loose on a world in which many people are struggling with the present, let alone what might happen in 10 or 20 years' time.

How wrong I was. The taskforce has been stimulating as well as revealing, and I am confident that it will lead to some important actions in what is a significant sector of our economy. And far from looking into the future being wearying, by looking at a particular sector with an engaged and open group of business leaders, it has been energising and constructive. The taskforce has an interim report that paints a picture of a sector on the edge of significant technological disruption.

Employing 1.1 million people across the UK, financial services is a sector that is nervous about its future and keen to change before it is undermined by tech companies moving in with new models and products. That trepidation is in part based on the overall structure of the workforce, with a high proportion of both the highest and lowest skilled, while at the same time having far too few people with the technology and digital skills that look likely to be central to the sector’s future.

Clarion call

Around two-thirds of jobs are located outside London, many in call centres and administrative roles that look vulnerable to automation, machine learning and AI. That many of these jobs are in more disadvantaged parts of the country should be a clarion call for government, local and national, to work with colleges and employers to invest in retraining, which will help people secure future jobs in higher-level customer service and digital skills. It seems simple when actual jobs are looked at in a sector like this – many people will be left behind as technology proceeds unless training happens now.

Higher-level employees are not immune from this transformation either. Their roles will change enormously at the very least and be replaced in many cases: from chief investment officer to chief innovation or chief data officer, for instance. That challenge for senior executives will be as profound as it is for call centre staff, but another revelation impacts here: this is a sector that has the third-lowest training spend of all sectors, and that spend is skewed to those in higher-level roles. That has to change if the sector is to continue to flourish.

Attracting new talent

Since the 2008 credit crunch, employers have recognised that this is a sector that has struggled to attract new talent in the ways it did before then. To attract new talent, particularly in digital skills, will require real change – more flexible, dynamic working, perhaps, for young people wanting to retain some freedoms – with more work on perceptions: of values, of the role the sector plays in our society and economy. Those changes might help recruit the talent the sector needs, but only if augmented by new routes into the sector. Relying on graduates alone will not suffice, particularly when new talent and diversity are twin goals.

Colleges can help here, through new partnerships to open up talent pathways from non-traditional groups and with skills programmes aimed at the new roles that are hard to fill. The tough job will be to find the investment needed to make those partnerships work, given the funding challenges colleges face.

So I would commend the interim report and I would certainly like to see other sectors of the economy taking this approach. We must never stop looking to the long term and we need people to stimulate discussions about how the world will change, but for me, it gets interesting when we talk about the near-future rather because we can act on that now. For the financial services sector, as for many others, the sooner we start, the better.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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