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Re-skilling: Why Standing Still is Not an Option

Today’s labour market is very different to what it was a generation or two ago. The old certainties of ‘a job for life’ are long gone.

When some of us first entered the world of work – and certainly our parents and grandparents – the relationship between education and work, training and the skills you needed to do your job, was pretty linear and straightforward.

On leaving formal education, you would perhaps undertake an apprenticeship, or train in a particular profession. Once that process was finished, that was it – you were deemed ready for the world of work, and could comfortably pass the rest of your career without ever sitting through another training session again.

How things have changed. Now, instead of jobs for life, we have the concept of lifelong learning – the continual need to re-skill and retrain in order to keep your head above water in a choppy, fluid, constantly changing labour market.

The average British adult now works in six different job roles in the course of their careers. Those changes include half of all workers making a conscious decision at some point that their chosen career path isn’t for them, and re-training in a completely new area.

Each of those changes involves an element of starting again skillswise. Whether you choose to leave a particular job, come to the end of a contract, are laid off or the company you work for closes down, new beginnings require new skills and capabilities. Success in the recruitment market is often dependent on a candidate’s ability and willingness to learn.

This presents greater challenges to certain sections of the workforce more than other.

Remaining relevant

A few years ago, accounting professional body the AAT published a report setting out the economic case for re-skilling. Its basic argument was that improving access to and aptitude for training and lifelong learning was essential to making best use of available labour resources, especially amongst older workers.

Contrary to media-driven stereotypes about youth unemployment, the report found that workers aged 55 to 64 were more likely to be in long-term unemployment than any other group, and implied a direct link to skills shortages. This, of course, is a demographic that entered the workplace when a job for life was still the expectation.

Having spent most of their careers not considering the need to broaden their skills sets beyond the needs of a single profession, finding themselves unemployed in later life is extremely difficult for older workers.

Digital skills

The AAT report recognised that one key area where older workers struggled when it came to returning to the recruitment market was digital skills. Expectations around the use of computers and other IT equipment in the workplace have transformed dramatically in the past two decades, and catching up is a major challenge for all workers who are not ‘digital natives’.

Technology itself is good enough reason why standing still is not an option when it comes to skills. The pace of change in IT is astonishing, and the systems we are used to using today will be outdated within a few short years. It isn’t just individuals who are challenged by this, whole enterprises are left scratching their heads wondering how they even start to go about updating decade-old systems which all of a sudden are a major drag on productivity and efficiency.

Skills for equality

Finally, one of the messages of the AAT report was that encouraging a more pro-active approach to re-skilling among older workers was a key way to address age inequalities in recruitment. This was a theme picked up at this year’s World Economic Forum summit at Davos, but this time looking at the perennial issue of workplace equality for women and ethnic minorities.

In preparation for the summit, the WEF produced a report entitled Towards a Reskilling Revolution, which is predicated on the fact that increasingly sophisticated levels of automation in business IT systems are likely to make millions of office administration and clerical roles obsolete over the next decade – disproportionately affecting female workers.

The WEF’s response is to get technology working on the side of its re-skilling revolution – starting with in-depth data analysis of thousands of current job roles and the skills they require.

It is a sensible starting point. If people are to maintain the right skill sets to remain employable, it helps to be clear about the skills that are in demand.