Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. He initiated and oversees the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international instruments that have created a global platform for policy-makers, researchers, and educators across nations and cultures to innovate and transform educational policies and practices.
He has worked for over 20 years with ministers and education leaders to improve education. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards and holds an honorary Professorship at the University of Heidelberg. Here, he shares some thoughts on skills and the future of work.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
To come out stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, there is a growing emphasis on workforce reskilling. How can organizations harness agile learning techniques to reskill employees for the larger digital transformation?
This trend started long before COVID-19, the latter has just accelerated it. Skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies. But this “currency” can depreciate as the requirements of labor markets evolve and individuals lose the skills they do not use, and both are what the COVID-19 pandemic reinforces. For skills to retain their value, they must be continuously developed throughout life. Furthermore, the toxic coexistence of unemployed graduates and employers who say that they cannot find the people with the skills they need underlines that more education does not automatically translate into better economic and social outcomes. To succeed with converting education into better jobs and lives, we need to better understand what those skills are that drive outcomes, ensure that the right skill mix is being learned over the lifecycle, and help economies to make good use of those skills.
The essential starting point for that is to better anticipate and respond to the evolution of skill demand. Government and business need to work together to gather evidence about skill demand, present, and future, which can then be used to develop up-to-date instructional systems and to inform education and training systems. During the past few decades, there have been major shifts in the economic underpinnings of industrialized countries and, more recently, of many emerging and developing countries, too.
Importantly, the steepest decline in skill demand is no longer in the area of manual skills but in routine cognitive skills. When we can access the world’s knowledge on the Internet, when routine skills are being digitized or outsourced, and when jobs are changing rapidly, accumulating knowledge matters less, and success becomes increasingly about ways of thinking—creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and judgment—about ways of working—collaboration and teamwork—and about the sociocultural tools that enable us to interact with the world.
The steepest decline in skill demand is no longer in the area of manual skills but in routine cognitive skills. Success is increasingly about ways of thinking, ways of working, and about the sociocultural tools that enable us to interact with the world
How can the education system match this changing demand?
One area where many nations could learn from countries like Denmark, Germany, Norway, or Switzerland is to shift more of the premium in education from qualifications-focused education upfront to skills-oriented learning throughout life. OECD’s Learning for Jobs analysis shows that skill development is far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are linked. Compared to purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in schools, learning in the workplace allows people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment, and “soft” skills such as teamwork, communication, and negotiation through real-world experience.
The experience of these countries also suggests that hands-on workplace training is an effective way to motivate disengaged youth to re-engage with education and smoothen the transition to work. They succeed with preventing school dropout by offering more relevant education and second-chance opportunities, and by offering work experience to young people before they leave education.
Employers have an important role in training their own staff, even if some, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, get public assistance to provide such training. Trade unions in these countries also help to shape education and training, protect the interests of existing workers, ensure that those in work use their skills adequately, and see that investments in training are reflected in better-quality jobs and higher salaries.
Between employers and the education system, where is the greater effectiveness and responsibility to prepare people for the future of work?
It is clear that skills need to become everyone’s business. Governments, which can design financial incentives and favorable tax policies that encourage individuals and employers to invest in post-compulsory education and training; education systems, which can foster entrepreneurship as well as offer vocational training; employers, who can invest in learning; labor unions, which help that investments in training are reflected in better-quality jobs and higher salaries; and individuals, who can take better advantage of learning opportunities. Countries also need to take a hard look at who should pay for what, when, and how. Some individuals can shoulder more of the financial burden for tertiary education, and funding can be linked more closely to graduation rates, provided individuals have access to income-contingent loans and means-tested grants.
It is clear that skills need to become everyone’s business: not just individuals and employers but governments, education systems, labor unions, financial systems—entire countries in fact
With the resources of so many different parties available to be drawn on, where should we start?
There are some really concrete steps that countries can take to dismantle barriers to participation in continued education and training:
- First, making the returns on adult education and training more transparent can help to increase the motivation of users to invest in it. Governments can provide better information about the economic benefits (including wages net of taxes, employment, and productivity) and noneconomic benefits (including self-esteem and increased social interaction) of adult learning.
- Second, less-educated individuals tend to be less aware of education and training opportunities or may find the available information confusing. A combination of easily searchable, up-to-date online information, and personal guidance and counseling services to help individuals define their own training needs and identify the appropriate programs is needed, as is information about possible funding sources.
- Third, clear certification of learning outcomes and recognition of non-formal learning are also incentives for training. Transparent standards, embedded in a framework of national qualifications, should be developed alongside reliable assessment procedures. Recognition of prior learning can also reduce the time needed to obtain a certain qualification and thus the cost of foregone earnings.
- Fourth, it is important to ensure that programs are relevant to users and are flexible enough, both in content and in how they are delivered to adapt to adults’ needs. A number of countries have recently introduced one-stop shopping arrangements, with different services offered in the same institution. This approach is particularly cost effective as it consolidates infrastructure and teaching personnel and makes continuing education and training more convenient. Distance learning and the open educational resources approach have significantly improved users’ ability to adapt their learning to their lives.
How can we ensure that all this reskilling and continuous learning will result in a good outcome for workers?
Building skills is still the easier part; far tougher is providing opportunities for young people to use their skills. Employers may need to offer greater flexibility in the workplace. Labor unions may need to reconsider their stance on rebalancing employment protection for permanent and temporary workers. Enterprises need reasonably long trial periods to enable employers giving those youth who lack work experience a chance to prove themselves and facilitate a transition to regular employment. The bottom line is that unused human capital represents a waste of skills and of the initial investment in those skills.
A combination of easily searchable, up-to-date online information, and personal guidance and counseling services to help individuals define their own training needs and identify the appropriate programs is needed, as is information about possible funding sources
Read more such stories from the September issue of our e-magazine on 'Jobs: Now & Beyond’