The risks of failing to establish a lifelong learning culture

Cameron Tait

The world of work is changing. New technologies are supporting people to become more productive, international labour markets are becoming increasingly integrated and we’ll all need to work longer before we retire.

These shifts mean the skills the workforce needs are changing too. One recent study predicted a further reduction in demand for routine and manual skills like book-keeping and machinery operation, and major growth in demand for soft interpersonal, creative and problem-solving skills over the coming years.

This challenge requires us not only to rethink how we equip our children and young people for the jobs of the future, but how we support people of working age too. We must abandon the widely held belief that education and training is something for young people, and begin to build a culture in which the development of existing skills and the pursuit of new ones becomes an accepted part of working life for people of all ages.

The risks of failing to establish a lifelong learning culture are severe. A report from Future Advocacy has warned the UK’s former industrial towns – where local economies are still recovering from the last period of industrial change – are likely to be disproportionately affected by the digitisation of jobs in the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’. And the Sutton Trust has warned we could see social mobility decrease and inequality increase if the government fails to reform the skills system.

So it is extremely concerning that the UK is sliding down the European lifelong learning league table, published by the Changing Work Centre today. The proportion of adults aged between 25 and 64 participating in adult education and training fell from 20 to 14 per cent between 2010 and 2016, with the UK slipping from fourth to ninth in the league table.

This tumble down the table is a result of major cuts to the UK spending on adult skills while most other developed economies have been making strategic investments. England’s adult skills budget was cut by 34 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2016, despite repeated warnings that the UK would be left behind by international competitors without major investment in vocational education and training.

Britain urgently needs to catch up in order to ensure every worker is prepared for the changing world of work, whether they are a steelworker in Redcar or a sales assistant in Reading. The report published today by the Changing Work Centre (a Fabian Society and Community initiative) and the German think tank FES showcases the innovative work being done to promote lifelong learning in Singapore, Germany, Austria, France and Australia.

New Tricks sets out five lessons the UK should learn from these innovative international approaches. The report calls for the UK government to extend the remit of its recently announced national retraining scheme beyond construction and digital to include every sector. The government should also look again at individual learning accounts (a policy abandoned in the UK 16 years ago) and this should be accompanied by a new employment insurance to cover living costs during training, as well as a right to request training leave after one year of employment.

Finally, embedding a culture of continual retraining in the UK will take many years of concerted government action spanning across multiple parliaments. Luckily this is a policy area with strong support from both of the UK’s main political parties: Labour has set out its plans for a cradle to grave national education service, and the Conservative chancellor announced a package of lifelong learning commitments in last month’s budget, albeit on a modest scale. The next step should be for the two parties to sit down and agree a joint, cross-party commitment to revolutionise adult learning.

The future of work need not be as dystopian as some futurologists predict. Raising participation in adult training and ensuring the workforce can fill skills gaps could make the UK more productive and competitive. It could allow individuals to pursue more rewarding work and live more fulfilling lives.

We all need to be learning new things every day to keep pace with the changing economy. Government investment in lifelong learning initiatives will be richly rewarded.

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