Upskilling is the public sector’s responsibility

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Samuel Schofield, VP EMEA, Udacity, discusses the importance of upskilling today’s workforce and the responsibility of the public sector in supporting this

Governments globally are facing unprecedented challenges, not least when it comes to their workforce. COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends and catalysed the rate of digital transformation in business by around seven years; the hard part is keeping up.

According to the International Labour Office, one-fifth of young people globally, women in particular, are neither gaining experience in the labour market, receiving a working income, nor developing their skills and education. In parallel, while millions of jobs may be lost to automation over the next decade, disruptive technology will also create hundreds of millions more, requiring an adequately skilled workforce.

Education policy, government funding and private sector support must be aligned in order to empower workers of all ages with the relevant skills to adapt to and adopt new roles. For example, as by 2030, 9 in 10 workers in the UK will need to reskill, now is the time to invest in retraining these workers for the future – and governments must take some responsibility.

The potential economic benefits are significant: according to McKinsey analysis, investing in upskilling could increase global GDP by $6.5 trillion and global productivity by an average of 3% in the next decade. To put it simply, there’s never been a more important time for the public sector to invest in upskilling.

Today’s UK job market

The UK’s job market today is having to react to a number of shifting variables, from the adoption of new technologies such as IoT, AI and automation, to an ageing population. Together, these create structural shifts which our economy must adapt to. COVID, too, has created rare conditions that allow governments to rethink and reset, especially with regards to the UK’s digital skills deficit. From a governmental perspective, these new market conditions should be seen as an opportunity to upskill the population rather than a disruptive threat.

Upskilling provides a strong, long-term solution with a win-win scenario. Training workers with new, current skills will not only engage and motivate them but also boosts national productivity and expedites digital transformation goals. And the demand is there: approximately 80% of UK executives expect to hire more workers in tech and automation roles. It’s imperative not to allow the skills gap to widen.

On a societal level, coordination between government, private companies and education providers is necessary to ensure accessibility for diverse and underrepresented talent. 49% of people in the UK’s lowest socioeconomic group have been given no training since leaving secondary school. In an increasingly technology-driven world, digital skills for many communities are inaccessible, and this is an incredibly important area to funnel public funds towards.

Upgrading mindsets unlocks potential

As the pandemic has destabilised the jobs market and accelerated the uptake of new technological solutions in business, resetting mindsets to embrace the idea of career-long learning will go a long way.

Inspiring graduates and experienced workers alike will drive employment figures and productivity levels and help to diversify the economy. Crucially, introducing robust upskilling initiatives will serve to future-proof a workforce in which technology skills are increasingly vital.

The government’s Education and Skills Funding Agency and National Skills Fund are moves in the right direction. The former is coordinating a programme called the Adult Education Budget, supplying funding for a large range of professional training opportunities aimed at employers and individuals. The latter includes free digital and technical skills bootcamps across the country.

To gain momentum and make a real leap, the government’s approach must be agile and integrated. National upskilling initiatives need collaboration with the education sector and non-profits, alongside incentives for businesses and an understanding of what skills are in high demand.

The key will be to foster a new mindset: placing increased value on credentials that are shorter, more relevant to today’s world will equip workers to thrive among evolving working conditions and a digital economy. Project-based learning with industry-driven content is the most effective way to provide technical skills.

Commitment from governments, corporates and education providers to place individuals in jobs beyond their training will further support the transition to a thriving digital economy. More specifically, focusing on areas where demand for talent is increasing, for example in the green economy, will generate jobs and momentum. Supporting technology innovation through talent pipelines will only help to bolster such rapidly emerging new focal areas, and revitalise existing areas in danger of falling behind.

Closer to home, UK civil servants themselves agree that upskilling is necessary. In a recent BearingPoint survey, 66% have said that in the next three years, their current role will require many new skills. From within, technology-adept civil servants will be better able to facilitate tasks in all aspects of their roles.

The win-win realisation

The simple fact is that achieving universal digital transformation and literacy, brought by sufficient foundational support, will benefit everyone. The opportunities are numerous across enterprise, public sector and society as a whole.

Bringing everyone up to new levels of digital literacy minimises the skills gap and stops people from being left behind in a world that is increasingly dominated by technology. Alongside the societal aspects, from an economic point of view effective reskilling tends to increase productivity by 6-12%.

At a time when many people are no longer tied to their physical office and are seriously rethinking their current working situation, commitment to workers is important. And where employers are no longer restricted by geography, the government must limit ‘brain drain’ and take responsibility in encouraging the hiring of technologists from the UK, over those elsewhere, by ensuring talent pools are of similar quality.

For many countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, there is an over-reliance on outsourcing. Outsourcing’s vast expense and temporary nature can be offset by pursuing robust training initiatives, allowing businesses to source talent internally and keep technical knowledge in-house.

Embrace the opportunity

While the effects of COVID-19 have been devastating, the pandemic has catalysed a shifting approach towards the agile mindset. For example, when Tesco saw increased demand for online sales, the supermarket chain hired and reskilled45,000 workers, including furloughed pub workers. Five months later, it announced its intention to permanently employ 16,000 of these extra workers, having successfully navigated the shift in customer demand.

As Tesco demonstrated, the power lies with the people; the responsibility to implement lies with the management.

The UK population represents a huge fleet of potential in a sea of evolving currents. The government must embrace the opportunity to create and tailor infrastructures to support and empower the workforce to fire up our economy and become thriving, innovating members of the community. Now is the time for the government to take the helm.


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