The Future Shape of Work?

At this time of continuing financial crisis, high youth unemployment and ever accelerating technological advance the issues associated with the shape of work and the workforce in the future and its implications for education and training have never been so important.  The reality is that employment and employability are changing at an accelerating rate. Over the past two or three decades work patterns have changed albeit gradually, evidenced by the following factors:

  • The exponential growth of technological advance is now greater than the ability of people to keep in touch with the technologies and its consequences i.e. there is an increasing gap between technological advances and the ability of society and people to manage it.
  • Jobs have been lost because of automation and the increasing use of robots in a wide range of industries.
  • Part-time employment, zero hours employment and self employment has increased partly as a result of contracting out of services.
  • Expectations of life-time employment with a single employer has significantly declined in many occupations.
  • Employment in small companies and self-employment have increased.
  • The level of knowledge, competences and skills for employability has risen, while the number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs has declined.
  • An increasing recognition of the importance of further education/training and continuing professional development (CPD) because of advancing technologies and newer industries
  • Reduced dominance of large companies and increased importance of SMEs.
  • Increase in female participation in employment.

This list is not by any means exhaustive but attempts to reflect the multitude of factors and inter-connections between them driving the changes. However these changes will accelerate with the continuing advance in technologies particularly with automation, robotics, 3D printing and nano-technologies and the need to create new occupations associated with these. People will increasingly moving between paid employment, self-employment, voluntary work and periods of learning depending on their circumstances and personal decisions.

There has always been a tension between education and training for the present (i.e. the skills and knowledge that are required by employers now) and for the future (i.e. skills and knowledge that will be required later by employers) because of mismatches between supply and demand. Mismatches have long existed  because of supply and demand issues and three components can be identified namely employers’ demand for the correct skills, providers’ supply of education and training opportunities and the demand for skills from learners and potential learners. The resulting mismatches can be represented as follows:

  • Employer demand – provider supply: the mismatch between employer demand for particular skills and the supply of skilled people from providers.
  • Learner aspirations – employer demand: the mismatch between what learners aim to achieve through education and training and the skill needs of employers.
  • Provider supply – learner aspirations: the mismatch between the programmes offered by providers and the expectation and needs of the learners.

Although the problems that arise from these mismatches are constant the potential solutions vary with time depending on government policies, the dynamics of international competition, what resources exist and the changing structure of post-16 learning and skills. However these mismatches will inevitably become even more pronounced with the uncertainties that will exist in the future. However in order to create a successful economy the education and training system must recognise and adapt to the complexities and challenges that future patterns of employment and work will present both to employers and employees. This is why education and training is critical in recognising the challenges and being able to respond quickly and effectively to these challenges. Achieving the necessary checks, balances and matches is going to be difficult because the uncertain and increasingly volatile and dynamic environment will be further complicated by the multitude of players and stakeholders involved. Finally the situation will inevitably be exacerbated by politicians who will continue to tinker and intervene with policies that relate to employment, the national economy and education/training etc. One example of the negative influence of government is the time factor that comes from the inertia of governmental policies as well as the legal and social systems to adapt and recognise the urgency of the changes that will be required. A quote from an RSA report ‘Government, the law and social systems take months and years to react; modern companies work in hours and days’ (1).

So what are the possible factors that will shape work and employment in the future and how should education and training respond to those changes and challenges? The transitions that will change the nature of employment and the consequences for education and training are again many and inter-connected and a few are as follows:

  • The urgent need to improve the levels of scientific, mathematical/numerical and technological literacy and methodology of the workforce and society in general.
  • Urgent attention is required to tackle the low productivity of British workers – 20% lower than  the French and 32% lower than  Germany.
  • More effective managements of workers recent surveys have shown employees are spending company time on personal interests e.g. sending pointless emails, on twitter and face book – a sad statement about their commitment, loyality and motivation towards the company.
  • This country must prepare people to work in industries that are engaged in producing products at the higher end of manufacturing and further up the value chain.
  • Linked with the previous statement the developments associated with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) will challenge existing business, cultural, economic social practices and structures. The need to manage large data/information sources/sets will require people to become more able to effectively and efficiently access, select, evaluate and analyse data. Equally importantly companies will need to become more effective in mining’ the massive amounts of data/information that will benefit their businesses.
  • The need to further develop basic (i.e. numeracy, literacy and IT skills), the wider interpersonal skills (i.e. communication skills, working in a team, planning/managing one’s own learning, managing change) and generic skills (i.e. reasoning skills, scheduling work and diagnosing work problems, time management, work process management skills, evaluating and appreciating information, risk management, managing change and planning skills).
  •  Develop a greater understanding of the values of how society, government and businesses work.
  • The increasing need to recognise the challenges of globalisation and greater competition and the importance of knowledge of foreign languages and cultures and the desire by businesses to locate anywhere in the world where greater levels of flexibility, productivity and profits can be realised.
  • Respond to the impact of the myriad of ecological issues e.g. resource- efficient processes, smart and green developments across many sectors like transport, water conservation, alternative energy supplies, biotechnologies etc.

The sad reality is that the way current business practises and capitalism operates are not conducive to protecting the environment and incompatible to a green agenda so a new paradigm for businesses is urgently required coupled with a fundamentally reformed model of capitalism! For example over 70% of current employment is dependent in one way or another on the continued use and exploitation of fossil fuels.

Education and training must recognise and respond to these transitions as the boundaries between work and non-work become more uncertain and the skills for work and citizenship and work and life become more complex and the required skills themselves become less clear and converge. Skills are a slippery concept and require careful monitoring and must recognise adapt as the world of work itself changes. People leaving education and training must possess new sets of skills and competences in addition to the existing ones in order to cope with the future employment challenges and in turn contribute to the country’s economic health more effectively.

(1)    ‘Redefining Work’. RSA. 1998.


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