Skills training: businesses also need an education shake-up

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The government’s education reforms seem to be bearing fruit for students, but what about people who are already in work? We need to invest in skills now to ensure UK employees are equipped for the future.

Last month, the Department of Education breathed a sigh of relief. The nation-wide introduction of new tougher A-levels came off without disaster. This was a positive move towards the government’s goal of bringing the UK’s education standards more in the line with those of the usual OECD-beaters: Finland, Singapore, and Switzerland.  

The recasting of the A-level and GSCE exams shows great foresight from the Department of Education, especially when viewed as part of a wider ambition to future-proof the UK’s next generation of workers.

Tougher global competition and increasingly complex economic issues mean that today’s students need to develop a wide range of skills to combat the business challenges of tomorrow. This has also led to Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, to publically call for more investment in cutting-edge education technology.

However, the Department of Education has paid little attention to the pressing need to develop the skills of the 32 million people that are already in work.

The skills that employers are looking for are shifting. Technological advancements and other disruptive forces have meant that many industries are now scrambling to find the talent that they need to fill many job roles.

The government needs to do more to encourage companies not to simply look to the next generation, but to identify skills gaps within their own companies and use modern training methods to ensure their own employees can fill these gaps.

Investing in digital skills

This is most evident in the worrying lack of digital skills amongst the UK workforce. A 2017 study by Accenture highlighted the urgent need for companies to invest in upskilling their workers in digital skills, estimating that this would result in an £11 billion increase to the UK’s GDP.

The report specifically highlighted the need to train those who hold jobs that are at high risk of automation. While these jobs may not exist in a decade’s time, those employees who have an understanding of technology and are able to work beside it will ensure their job security.

By harnessing technologies such as virtual reality systems, or online learning platforms, companies will have much greater agility in their capacity to re-train and upskill their workers.

Industry leaders are already adapting to this pressing need. This month, Marks & Spencer’s CEO Steve Rowe announced that the company would provide staff across the business with access to digital skills training.

Over an 18-month period, M&S will train 1,000 employees, from board directors and members of the finance department, to buyers and store managers.

M&S hopes that by giving employees digital skills training they will feel emboldened to use the wide range of retail technology with greater confidence and dexterity, resulting in a work environment more adaptable to change.

This strategy responds to the most pressing challenges faced by retailers in the struggle to remain competitive against disruptive players such as Aldi and Lidl.

Steve Rowe has said that this decision was taken to ensure the future survival of his company in a rapidly changing industry. However, digital skills enrolment will likely also ensure the survival of many employees.

Over the next decade, a reported 2.25 million retail and wholesale jobs are at risk of automation.

By equipping their employees with digital training, M&S is ensuring that workers have the expertise necessary to work alongside automated technology, whilst mitigating fears of being replaced by it.

Automation to create jobs

In order to empower workers in an increasingly digital and automated world, businesses must ensure that basic digital training is a key part of any employee development plan.

A recent report by PwC assures that by boosting economic growth, automation will create as many jobs as it displaces. However, the skills needed to fill these jobs will be very different to those needed now. This will take training not only in digital skills. Managerial techniques, logistics and strategy, will become increasingly complex as industries continue to be turned on their head by disruptive forces.

UK businesses are facing a myriad of challenges right now that will continue to change the skills they require from their employees.

Workers will need to be trained in how to meet the challenges that these changes will pose to businesses. If the government does not take the steps needed to ensure those already in work have these skills, an entire generation of workers will be unable to benefit from the opportunities that automation and disruptive technology offer.

The very same cutting-edge education technology that Damian Hinds called upon schools to invest in can also be harnessed to do just this. By harnessing technologies such as virtual reality systems, or online learning platforms, companies will have much greater agility in their capacity to re-train and upskill their workers.

The Department of Education has taken effective first steps to ensure that the next generation is able to compete on a global stage and have the skills they need to meet future challenges.

However, UK businesses are facing a myriad of challenges right now that will continue to change the skills they require from their employees. Empowering workers with diversified skills will supply companies with a workforce able to confidently work in an increasingly digital world.

It is now up to the Education Secretary and the Department of Education to encourage UK businesses to act on this opportunity.

Enjoyed this article? You may also want to read Why the education system is failing learners and how to change the established learning mindset.

About Rebecca Garrod-Waters

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