Skills image

There’s no shortage of debate and analysis about the future skills needs of modern economies. From mitigating climate change through to the impact of automation, there is a growing body of evidence that can point policy makers in the right direction. Predictions can only ever offer a partial picture. Given the scale and pace of change it is difficult job to predict with accuracy the specific skills our economy will need in the future.

However, there is much that we do know.  Our own recent analysis, produced in partnership with NOCN, identified three key areas for future development.  It sets out a useful summary of the broad areas for future focus:  management skills to drive performance and digital skills, employability and generic skills such as literacy, numeracy, digital and cognitive skills, and the specific technical skills and knowledge to support the transition to an AI and digital-based economy.

This sort of analysis is emerging as the norm in discussions around the challenges of the future.  The greater challenge for policy-makers is not to just define the skills we will need but to build an infrastructure capable of delivering appropriate support for individuals, employers and communities.  This must mean support to help them make the right decisions about their futures and a recalibration of the system so that it is flexible and designed around the needs of learners.

The first step is to recognise the nature of the challenge and develop a plan to reform the system to meet it.  Firstly, this must mean recognising that with longer working lives and rapid changes in technology all of us will need the opportunity to retrain and learn new skills.  Front loading investment in education in the first two decades of our lives is no longer sustainable.  We need lifelong investment to enable people to adapt to technological change and to take part in civic life.

Secondly, we need to embed a commitment to social justice at the heart of our response.  The technological challenges advanced economies will face in the coming decades risk further entrenching inequalities rather than addressing them.  All the evidence suggests that workers with the lowest skills will see the greatest impact from automation.  Our skills policy needs a balanced approach that recognises the need at all levels.  Higher skill levels are important, but so is making sure hundreds of thousands of Welsh citizens, including typically excluded groups like care leavers and disabled people, aren’t left behind and that we don’t double down on the disadvantages they already face.

Building the system around the lives of working people is the third change needed.  There simply aren’t enough young people to meet the future skills needs of the economy, which means we need to do more to upskill people already in work.  Unfortunately cuts to part-time learning in further education and a focus on full-time provision for 16 to 24-year olds mean that there are significantly fewer learning opportunities for adults than just a decade ago.  Rebuilding these opportunities and giving people access to learning in the evenings, weekends, online, and in the local community are part of the solution.

Finally, people will need help to navigate their way through this change.  Access to independent advice and guidance at key transition points in your life are ‘must haves’ within a modern skills system.  Alongside improved communication about the benefits of learning, flexible pathways and access to high quality guidance will go a long way to helping adults to extract value from the changes that are coming our way.

The debate about future skills mustn’t go away.  It needs to be an active, ongoing debate.  The real challenge though is to move it from one about what we need to a focus on developing and delivering a roadmap of how we get there.