Today’s Education and Tomorrow’s Skills

21st Mar, 2014

With underemployment among young people aged 16-24 running at close to 22% and a further 14.4% classified as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) – not to mention the low wages available to young people in employment – we might assume that we are experiencing a major national jobs crisis.

Yet with the headline unemployment rate in decline amid fervent talk of recovery and growth there are clearly other issues to consider.

So, if it isn’t exclusively the demand side, then some issues must lie on the supply side of the equation. Indeed, there is no shortage of employers willing to voice their concerns about a skills shortage among young people together with the failures of the (state) education system.

For the Baby Boomer generation a university degree was seen as a guaranteed gateway to secure long-term employment.

Today, with limited job prospects allied to unprecedented (and unsustainable?) levels of associated debt, more and more young people are questioning the value of their degrees – and their relationship with the skills required to succeed in today’s labour market.

It is argued that Higher Education no longer prepares students for the real world, let alone providing them with the critical inter-personal or emotional (soft) skills in such demand. As an aside it’s striking to note that while women are seen to excel in these areas they are currently unlikely to combine them with ICT skills – where there are clear shortages in the labour market at present.

It is therefore said that there is a fundamental disconnect between the skills required in the labour market and the education delivered through our schools and universities.

Of course this argument fails to mention the impact of the relentless pace of technological change associated with the birth of the world-wide-web and wider technologies 25 years ago. In fact 25 years ago around half of today’s jobs did not even exist!

As we discussed in a previous blog post , ‘machines’ are increasingly taking over the jobs of workers – replacing routine manual work and increasingly more sophisticated jobs, adding increased pressure and competition across the full spectrum of high, medium and low skilled jobs and eroding the securities upon  which the middle class is established. This theme was addressed by Bill Gates in a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

While we firmly believe that technological progress is fundamental to economic and social growth and is central to resolving some of the key challenges facing the planet we also recognise that this needs to be managed appropriately and requires strategic oversight and consideration to harness the benefits effectively while striving to minimise the downside risks.

As such and despite replacing human capital, technological progress also creates new jobs (who would have thought we needed this many, if any, Community Managers or Content Marketers or similar two decades ago?).

Exploring the jobs market of the future can be both great fun and highly informative as this report, commissioned by the UK government highlights. Here we can see Vertical Farmers, Elderly Well-Being Consultants, Memory Augmentation Surgeons and Body Part Makers to the fore.

Our traditional higher education model is simply not designed to adapt to the fast changing labour market. Neither was our university system designed to introduce new classes or alter their curricula as fast as we would be required to keep up with the specific skills required for an uncertain future.

In part at least the discussion is disingenuous reflecting the conflation of education, employment and skills as part of the wider business hegemony. Thus we might argue that, recent interest in and support for apprenticeships notwithstanding, many employers are simply seeking to transfer the burden of training and personal development back to the state.

We thus need to radically rethink the way we educate and train our young people, ensuring that there is an optimum range of finance mechanisms, entry points, study types and vocational choices available such that the scandal of one million NEETS may never again be repeated.

Addressing the skills gap will require long term planning and serious consideration – acknowledging the complexity of this challenge has been the first step and we at Trajectory are looking forward to see further developments in this area, in the UK and globally.