How can digital technology help create an agile skills system?

Reflections from our discovery workshops

The following notes are taken from our discovery workshops held at the beginning of March as part of our VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.

You can read a summary here.


Our workshops on the 1st and 2nd of March explored how digital technology can support an agile skills system. Discussion covered the following areas: fragmentation and complexity characterise the skills system; the need for new evidence bases to underpin skills decision making in rapidly changing systems; changing core skills of digital, green and soft skills; and how we use technology to develop an open, adaptive learning culture for skills. The questions and provocations emerging from these themes will inform our thinking as we continue to shape the VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.

Improved skills evidence where rapid change is the “new normal”

Fragmentation and complexity characterise the skills system, with participants suggesting they are seeing a more rapid pace of change in the type of skills demand across all skill levels. Technology continues to drive many workplace job changes, with people suggesting the revolution long predicted around workplace roles from AI is now more rapidly emerging and will accelerate. Contributors report that skills changes are beyond a rise of digital; more complex workplaces require increased levels of ‘soft’ competences and behaviours, more technical job roles, and a requirement for workers to understand how their jobs may change, and the future skills they may need. A responsive, adaptive skills system will become more critical. However, people felt that the skills system is slow to respond to change and lacks evidence to support skills decision making. The education system is also slow to adopt technology and lags many other sectors.

Increased prioritisation of developing evidence bases of skills needs and future projections was reported especially in the use of big data to identify skills trends. For example, NFER workforce projections to 2035 which are mapping employer skills demand against occupational classifications to understand future job profiles. These suggest the workforce will continue to become ever more qualified; a doubling of post graduate job roles is predicted, and increasing numbers of jobs will require adults qualified to at least level 4. But contributors contrasted these projections with known patterns of graduate oversupply which continue to produce skills imbalances and restrict young people after significant investment in education. In addition, participants felt there was limited progress in bridging long standing vocational divides with academic pathways. Digital technology is suggested as having a key role to play in supporting forms of immersive learning that can connect learners on academic and vocational pathways to understand how their skills, for example how medical/engineering might apply across contexts.

People shared that the move to devolved skills at a national and combined authority level means there are more centres of skills control, all of whom are building their own evidence systems and skills pathway models. People asked how do we connect the job opportunities of, for example West Bromwich with learners who may be in Newcastle? Contributors suggested we need a better understanding of how digital technology might support what are complex, multi-level, and multi-stakeholder processes. Some Combined Authorities are trying to map local qualification pathways to support learners in their area, but this is a local approach, and proving immensely complex and labour intensive. Contributors highlighted collaborative models of skills development seen in Scotland and the RSA Cities of Learning projects as possible future models.

The changing nature of core skills

We need an agile skills system which can respond to changes in skills language, definitions, and competences. People viewed the skills system in different ways, from a fundamental skills basis to more philosophical design principles, which provided different insights of where barriers may exist in a system. Our relatively short discussion produced many system skill changes:

The increasingly digitisation of job roles

Contributors reported 80% of jobs require basic digital skills, including knowledge of Microsoft, with increasing numbers of jobs needing more advanced digital skills. Digital was universally seen as the third foundational skill in common alongside English and Maths across all job roles, not just the digital growth sector. Ufi work with the four nations has identified the significant differences that occur in national approaches to digital, with England lagging Scotland and Wales in defining its digital strategy.  Participants reported what digital skills constitute across sectors can be hard to identify, with employers requiring support to define and decide their skills gaps. In addition, in growth sectors such as digital, barriers to entry into the workforce exist through the technical nature of many growth job roles, with women significantly underrepresented in the digital workforce. For example, digital roles can require three years coding experience with few routes to reskill or upskill on the job. The requirement for high experience and /or qualifications was reported to reduce entry opportunities and in-work progression through upskilling or reskilling.

Growth in demand for ‘soft’ skills

All contributors reported a rise in jobs which require competencies which come under the suite of skills variously described as ‘soft’, ‘meta-cognitive’, ‘fundamental employment’, ‘resilience’, or ‘self-efficacy’ skills. People felt these skills are becoming key in entry to work, and for career progression once in a job. However, these skills have no agreed language or definitions, are highly subjective, and typically require experience of real-world situations to demonstrate competency. These skills were generally agreed by participants to include self-reflection, empathy, curiosity, communication including supervisory discussions; critical analysis including informed decision making, problem solving, organisational planning, information literacy; resilience and team working. Participants shared that experienced workers were not good at recognising or articulating their skills in these terms, and this was even harder for learners who had been out of employment. Here, the role of personalised, human support alongside digital learning was highlighted as key to support learners into new forms of work.

Green, sustainable, and value-based jobs

People shared that green jobs were still ill-defined and lacked common agreement on roles and skills despite the central focus of ‘green’ as a growth sector. Participants reported we need to define green jobs in two distinct forms: ‘green job roles’ as new occupations such as heat pump engineers which are directly linked to practically delivering net zero solutions of energy efficiency/sustainable living, and wider sustainability responsibilities which are becoming an increasingly important aspect of day-to-day job roles. In addition, people felt for businesses, particularly with a young client base, value sets were increasingly important, and create another aspect of emergent need for new skills to deliver ethically and in line with social justice statements.

AI and the human jobs

Participants described the move to AI needing to consider an increased complexity in high-tech skills, against jobs which cannot easily be automated and require high touch skills from human care, or high imagination skills, in for example, creative industries, and thinking outside the box skills.

However, participants recognised that even in the relatively short discussion above, many different descriptors of emerging and future skills were in use, with different participants having different priorities for their organisations. This highlighted the importance of improved system level evidence of trends and employer recruitment, and the development of common languages.

Agile skills systems need an expansive, not restrictive learning culture

Contributors welcomed the renewed focus of lifelong learning, but suggested several factors would be important in creating learning for a rapidly changing skills landscape. Firstly, the national culture of learning in vocational qualifications tends to a restrictive model, where employers train workers for a job-role skills set or health and safety requirement. Expansive learning models train workers in skills they may not need now, but may need in the future, or promote attitudes to learning which mean workers continually adapt to new job requirements, but these approaches may cost more. Learners need the confidence, mindset and understanding that reskilling and upskilling will be a normal cycle in employment.

Participants report currently employers are concerned that ‘over-training’ will lead to employees leaving, particularly in small firms with fewer progression opportunities meaning investment in skills is lost with the employee. The increasing reality is that employees will not stay in jobs for their working lifetime, the skills required to perform that job will change significantly over time, and the skills themselves will adapt to new forms.

Secondly, life-long learning needs to be developed as a continuum from initial education through to continuing adult education, where the expectation is that learners will reskill or upskill throughout their working lives. The education system needs to reflect that positive life-long attitudes to the need to reskill and upskill will begin in the foundation of initial education, to address the longstanding poor initial education experiences expressed by some groups of learners, which take significant resources to address in adult learners.

Thirdly, qualification systems need to be responsive to change. It was felt by some contributors that the recent vocational reforms were compartmentalising skills to a purely technical framing, with reforms not recognising the rise of soft skills, and the multi-skilled nature of many job roles , with examples given of electrical vocational qualifications not recognising that roles would be enacted on work sites where the worker may also need plastering, drilling skills, and be working within a large, multi-skilled team. However other contributors reported much discussion in these areas, suggesting that qualification processes may be adding to complexity and time to enact change.

VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition

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