Why we need to reboot the adult learning system
I was recently invited to speak at the European Vocational Skills Week conference in Helsinki, organised in cooperation with the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the EU. Nesta is involved with a number of European Commission projects but this one had a special resonance. Firstly, Finland is one of the countries taking part in our large upskilling and research project, FutureFit and secondly, I have a personal passion for raising the profile of technical skills training.
A family that up-skills together
My parents, typical of their generation, left school in their teens. My father (whose own mother left school at 14 and retrained in her 40’s to get dux of nursing) was a diesel and mechanical fitting apprentice. My mother went to business college when she was 15 and worked in an office for 10 years whilst bringing up three small kids. Both, also typical of their generation, went to university as adults, usually to evening classes, whilst working and raising a family. Amongst other qualifications, they obtained education degrees and became valuable and much loved teachers. My mother was only able to study because the government made all education free and she had childcare support from dad. My generation was supposedly where the academic promise lay. The rhetoric was pretty clear, as was the curriculum: higher education was the number 1 option, everything else meant failure. None of us went to university. Between us we have enjoyed accomplished careers as a chef, interior architect turned wine-bar owner and senior manager working in Europe.
The digital world
My parents and siblings have been able to re-skill when they needed because they had the necessary support from the government and family. Now reskilling is more important than ever but not everyone has the means or ability to re-train. Advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence mean the nature of jobs and skills are changing; 54% of all employees will require extensive upskilling or reskilling by 2022 (WEF, 2018) and 85% of EU jobs require at least a basic level of digital training (Cedefop, 2018). To meet the demands of a fast-changing labour market, governments, unions and industry have all made a greater effort to understand the skills that will be required and how those in work could be reskilled and upskilled.
Adult learning in Europe - what we know
However, creating an effective adult learning system, which helps to tackle inequality and social exclusion, still seems to be a distant goal. Our report, Becoming FutureFit shows wide disparities in adult learning across the EU. Participation rates in adult learning vary across countries and between demographic groups – from 64% in the Netherlands to 7% in Romania. A staggering 43% of adults had not participated in adult learning and had no intention of doing so; barriers to learning include clashes with work, cost, childcare responsibilities and distance. In order to help workers do the jobs we need now and in the near future, governments need to invest more heavily in creating effective adult learning systems and reducing barriers towards lifelong learning.
Cultivating soft skills and a learning mindset
Our research shows an increase in personal service occupations such as cooks hairdressers, beauticians, sales workers and care workers. This is positive news for individuals with an aptitude for technical skills and training but to allow workers to move easily between jobs and sectors, they will need to reskill with a combination of soft skills such as collaborative problem solving. The ability to solve problems with others is a crucial skill for young people in the workplace of the future but the current education system does little to support it. The future generation, which includes my 6 year old son, is still being taught Maths and English by rote, missing crucial lessons that foster creative, critical thinking, social and emotional skills. Nesta research shows that these skills will not only be important for future employment in the face of increased automation, but also to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing society.
Learning should not be a linear activity, or exclusively for those who have money or spare time. For everyone to thrive in work, training needs to be re-imagined to ensure learning fits individual needs and circumstances. An adult education system that is innovative, bold and experimental is key to understanding what works so that it can be scaled. Our research is looking into innovative solutions such as nano learning; 3 minute lessons that could be completed on the school run, or to and from work and chat bots that are providing real time career advice and guidance. Attitudes to training overall need to change too. Yes, we need more students doing STEM but we also need welders, hairdressers and care workers that are equally valued across society. And, everyone needs more adaptability skills such as creativity, problem solving and critical thinking because one thing we know for sure is that everything is changing - and it will always keep changing.
What else is Nesta doing?
Nesta’s vision is for a labour market system where information about skills and careers is open and empowering for workers; where technology is harnessed to reduce – not drive – inequalities in access to jobs; and where policies give everyone the power to overcome systemic barriers that stop them participating in good-quality, meaningful work.