Food for thought: The role of educators and employers in getting people ready for the world of work

Author: Stephen Somerville, MD, Government & Employers at FutureLearn

This month, FutureLearn hosted its inaugural Employment Breakfast Briefing with a focus on how we — collectively — can bridge the skills gap. Last year, a Bloomberg Next and Workday survey asked if business and academia were meeting the skills gap challenge, and what areas they might need to refine or rethink to improve outcomes. The research incorporated the views of 200 senior-level individuals — 100 each in academia and business — focusing on four primary themes: preparedness, skills, collaboration, and planning. The results identified a number of issues. A majority of respondents said new hires are not well-prepared to perform at a high level in a professional environment, primarily because of insufficient soft skills. In addition, a surprising number of organisations were found to lack formal plans and budgets for addressing the impact of emerging technologies; and business and academia were not thought to be collaborating as actively and effectively as they could be in preparing students for employment and reskilling individuals already in the workforce.

Part of the challenge comes in the form of some pretty big — almost philosophical — questions; the answers to which might not be universally agreed on. What, for instance, is the purpose of education? Is it solely a vehicle to getting people a job? And does responsibility for preparing people for the workplace primarily fall to educators or employers? Then of course comes the question: what is it that employers actually want? Do they think any skills are particularly lacking? Or hugely important?

Considerations around bridging the skills gap can produce more questions than answers. But one thing that can be agreed upon is the shared responsibility of this task. There are some fine examples of this joined-up approach to tackling the skills gap that we can look to for inspiration. The National Centre for Computing Education, for example, is a £78 million DfE-funded project, that will be established and run by a consortium comprising Raspberry Pi Foundation, Stem Learning and the British Computer Society. The centre believes that through a combination of online and face-to-face training for teachers, we can realise the ambition of “every child in every school in England having a world-leading computing education.” FutureLearn, for its part, will be the destination for all of the initiative’s online learning, with plans afoot to create 35 courses aimed at upskilling teachers on the frontline of computing education.

The Institute of Coding (IoC) is another good example. Counting FutureLearn among its partners, The IoC is a collaboration between the UK Government, more than 60 universities, big players in the tech industry, SMEs, industry groups, experts in non-traditional learning and professional bodies. Led by the University of Bath, the world-leading consortium aims to strengthen the UK’s position globally in computing and IT, address the UK digital skills gap and create opportunities for more computer science graduates.

From the point of view of educators, perhaps at least part of the challenge stems from the fact that the skills shortage we are now faced with doesn’t have a natural remedy within traditional education. ‘Soft skills’ — so long thought of as the poor relation to hard skills — despite encompassing things like: team-working skills; coordinating and collaborating with others; analytical reasoning/critical thinking; complex problem-solving; agility and adaptability; ethical judgment and decision-making; aren’t necessarily taught in schools or universities. Equally, and with the best will in the world, it is hard for conventional curriculums to make provision for all the latest developments in technology when advancements are taking place at such speed.

Then of course there is the more longitudinal view and broader societal changes. Last year, for instance, it was reported in The Guardian that more than six million workers are worried their jobs could be replaced by machines over the next decade. The finding prompted Yvette Cooper MP,  to outline the collaborative approach needed between politicians, unions and business, to ensure “everyone benefits” from the proliferation of automation.  Government and business certainly have a role to play (as we’ve seen from the above), but so too do educators, who must be part of the conversation. In many ways, online learning provides educators with the perfect platform.

Indeed, with the examples of soft skills and digital upskilling in mind, we see the advantages of online learning crystallising. FutureLearn, for example, has a whole suite of courses dedicated to soft skills, which can be viewed here, and a number of partners providing digital skills courses that can count towards employees’ continuous professional development.

There are no quick fixes and the conversation needs to be ongoing, but if we are to get people ready for the workplace and help plug the skills gap in the process, we’re going to need a collective effort from educators and employers. One that begins in schools and continues throughout a working life committed to continuous professional development.

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