Everywhere skills transform lives, generate prosperity and promote social inclusion. And if there is one lesson the global financial crisis had taught us in the late 2000s, then it is that we cannot simply bail ourselves out of economic turmoil, stimulate ourselves out of a recession or just print money our way out of a crisis.
A much stronger bet for countries to grow and develop in the long run is to equip the working population with better skills to collaborate, compete and connect in ways that drive their lives and their societies. The current pandemic has dramatically reinforced this, changing skill demands overnight and creating huge demands for just-in-time adult learning.
OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills shows that what people know, and what they do with what they know, has a major impact on their life chances. On average across countries, the median hourly wage of workers scoring at Level 4 or 5 in literacy — who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts — is more than 60% higher than for workers scoring at the baseline Level 1. The survey also shows that this impact goes far beyond earnings and employment. In the countries surveyed, individuals with poorer foundation skills are far more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities.
In one way, skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies. But this ‘currency’ depreciates rapidly as the requirements of labour markets evolve and individuals lose the skills they do not use. For skills to retain their value, they must be continuously developed throughout life. In a fast-changing world, lifelong learning has become the key to solving the skills gap, which is about constantly learning, unlearning and relearning when the context changes. We used to learn to do the work, now learning has become the work.
To succeed with converting education into better jobs and lives, we need to better understand what those skills are that drive outcome, ensure that the right skill mix is being learned over the lifecycle, and help economies make good use of those skills.
Acknowledging that the objective of education has changed
The essential starting point is to better anticipate and respond to the evolution of skill demand in societies. In the past, education was about teaching people something. Now, it’s about making sure that individuals develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world. These days, we no longer know exactly how things will unfold, often we are surprised and need to learn from the extraordinary, and sometimes we make mistakes along the way. And it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. We live in this world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of humans. It’s going to be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will help us harness technology to shape the world for the better.
These days, algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that often amplify our views but leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions and polarise our societies. So, tomorrow’s schools need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help them develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists.
The growing complexity of modern living, for individuals, communities and societies, means that the solutions to our problems will also be complex: in a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but with often global implications, means we need to become good in handling tensions and dilemmas. Striking a balance between competing demands — equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process — will rarely lead to an either/or choice or even a single solution. We need to think in a more integrated way that recognises interconnections. Our capacity to navigate ambiguity has become key.
Integrating the worlds of learning and work
We also know that adult learning and skills development are far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are integrated. Compared to purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in educational institutions, 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. Hands-on workplace training is also an effective way to motivate disengaged adults to re-engage with education. Employers have an important role in training their own staff, even if some, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, need public assistance to provide such training. Trade unions can 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.
In short, 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.
A wide spectrum of full- or part-time lifelong-learning activities needs to be available to address the skills gap: from work-related employee training, formal education for adults, second-chance courses to obtain a minimum qualification or basic literacy and numeracy skills, language training for immigrants, and labour-market training programs for job-seekers, to learning activities for self-improvement or leisure. There is much that can be done to dismantle barriers to participation in continued education and training:
- First, making the returns on lifelong learning more transparent can help to increase the motivation of users to invest in adult education and training. Governments can provide better information about the economic benefits (including wages net of taxes, employment and productivity) and non-economic 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 counselling 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 informal 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. Several 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.
This article was first published in October 2021.