Why we need a 'long-term, sustainable skills system'

Up to 42 per cent of the UK will retrain to remain employable: lifelong learning funding is key, says Kirstie Donnelly

Election 2019: Lifelong learning is a critical, apolitical issue, writes Kirstie Donnelly

Lifelong learning is receiving more attention than ever before. The Labour Party pledged to provide free education for adults across the country, and the Conservatives pledged to tackle skills development in the UK.

It has never been more critical to focus on this issue. People today are working much later into their lives, and we’re regularly seeing three – even four – generations in the workplace together. It’s no longer possible to study at the beginning of your career and think that those skills will still be relevant as you get towards the end – or even the middle – of your working life.


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To put it into context, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that, owing to the fourth industrial revolution and automation, 38 per cent to 42 per cent of the UK population will need to completely retrain in the next 10 years in order to remain employable. That is a staggering amount of training required to keep the UK workforce – and our industries – productive and competitive.

Election 2019: Learning for the future

Artificial intelligence and technology are transforming workplaces and industries at a previously unmanageable pace. The skills required to do a job today are vastly different to those required 10 years ago – and in many sectors, we’re yet to know what the required skillset will look like tomorrow.

There is an inherent need to upskill our workforce to ensure the prosperity of the UK economy and its workforce – and this counts just as much for those working in their 40s, 50s and 60s as it does for entry-level graduates and school leavers.

Earlier this year, the City and Guilds Group published our own research looking into the idea of continuous learning. Worryingly, it found a concerning discrepancy between the appetite of workers to learn new skills and aid from employers in allowing them to do so. The research revealed that while 76 per cent of the UK workforce believe it is important to continuously update their workplace skills, only 46 per cent are getting the support they need from their employer.

The results are even more alarming for the older segments of the workforce, with almost half of those aged 55 and over telling us they didn’t learn any new workplace skill in the past year.

The lifelong learning lifeline

If it is properly funded and supported by the government and employers, the UK’s adult learning system will ensure our workforce is fully fit to meet demand, as workers at all stages of their careers will be able to access the help they need to stay employable throughout their careers.

As the needs of the workplace evolve with ever-increasing speed, the lifelong learning movement is going to be one of the defining issues of our generation – and for those to come.

Constant training, upskilling and reskilling will be imperative for ensuring that workers can contribute to society, earn a decent wage throughout their career and meet the future demands of the UK economy. Not to mention, lifelong learning, and the pathways it can create into employment, is vital for kick-starting social mobility and addressing the inequality that’s entrenched within Britain.

A critical, apolitical issue

As the race for 10 Downing Street heats up, it’s reassuring to see that skills development and further education have already been brought into the spotlight.

While it remains to be seen who will be in government at the end of the year, we should all hope that the prime minister – whomever that may be – picks up the recommendations from Philip Augar’s post-18 review of education and funding. I also hope that they will consider the recommendations from the Lifelong Learning Commission’s report, which goes one step further and clearly defines how to build a long-term, sustainable skills system.

The UK is already grappling with significant skills gaps. The time has come to take action to ensure our workforce can cope with the demands of tomorrow.

Kirstie Donnelly MBE is managing director at City and Guilds Group and a commissioner on the Labour Lifelong Learning Commission

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