The Institute of Directors (IoD) has called for an end to the focus on exams at school and a move to continuous lifelong learning. The call is contained in a report titled ‘Lifelong Learning – Reforming education for an age of technological and demographic change.’
At the heart of the report is a concern that over 15m jobs are vulnerable to automation over the next 20 years. The result of this is that many of those people who are currently working will need to re-train in order to remain in work. The report will reopen debates about the way education is currently viewed as well as put pressure on both government and employers to look at new ways to keep staff up to date with new skills.
According to the author of the report Seamus Nevin, Head of Employment and Skills Policy at the Institute of Directors: “The basic structure of the UK education system dates from the mid-19th century, and has changed little since. Pupils are still tested on their ability to recall facts and apply standardised methods, two things computers do much better than humans. Technology is already integral to most jobs, but it will increasingly take on tasks that can currently only be done by people. Robots have shown they can complete repetitive, physical labour with great speed and precision, but computers are also increasingly able replicate many of our complex cognitive skills.”
This latter point is particularly relevant with IBM, HP, Microsoft and other large vendors locked in a battle for cognitive computing and artificial intelligence for the business. While these are nothing new, advances in technology over recent years has meant that many of the ideas from the 1980’s are now able to be delivered.
The press release mentions an action plan with five points. These are:
- Remove political interference from the school curriculum. Instead, curricula should be advised upon, and continuously re-examined, by a body composed of education experts and businesses.
- Stop schools becoming ‘exam factories’ that primarily test students’ recall of information, something that computers are far better at than humans.
- Shift careers guidance away from CV writing, towards genuine, tailored advice on how to succeed in industry and the workplace
- As technology changes the workplace, we must increase use of technology in education, including ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (Moocs) to reduce costs and give more people access.
- Introduce tax incentives to encourage people to return to education, and make it easier for employers to invest in their staff.
Employers must do more
Unlike previous reports that have focused solely on the education system, this one does identify the need for employers to step up and act. Under a section title Guidance, the report states:
“In the 21st century, education doesn’t end at school and businesses must play their part. The focus must be on in-work training and providing a career lattice, rather than a career ladder, where employees can develop by doing a range of different roles, gaining experience, developing new skills, and tapping into alternative networks.
“Government must play its part too, bringing together industry-wide collaboration between businesses and employers, ensuring every school has a suitably qualified, dedicated full-time careers coach whose job is to provide independent careers education and guidance and to coordinate employer engagement for students.
“Multiple, high-quality work experiences should become compulsory for all students from the age of 13 onwards so that young people can learn from employers and be better informed and equipped to make the right choices to help achieve their future career aspirations”
It will be interesting to see just how far employers are willing to go. Across many businesses there is a lack of ongoing education for staff. The training programmes of the 1980’s and 1990’s that focused on IT skills have disappeared in many organisations as they expect new staff to know the basics of word processing and using spreadsheets. With schools still not focused on these areas many companies still find themselves running limited catch-up courses.
IT security is another are where the lack of training is a problem. Much of the focus on protecting data and systems is based on telling employees what not to do and relying on security software. This ignores the fact that hackers and cybercriminals are often highly successful by targeting individuals and crafting personal attacks. Without training staff in what to look for and how to identify a potential attack it’s hard to improve security.
For IT departments the problem is worse. Training is always one of the first things to get cut when budgets are squeezed and IT departments have seen their budgets squeezed for over a decade. The result is that while they are willing to pay extra for qualified staff they expect their own staff to self-learn using books, paying for their own courses and learning at home. This means that there is an increasing gap between skills and demand.
Unsurprisingly the report again puts more emphasis on employees than employers and this is a problem the IoD must resolve. Self-learning, self guided training, computer-based training and Moocs are all well and good but to incentivise staff properly there must be realisable benefits in the workplace.
Who will pay?
In the press release Nevin says: “Lifelong learning allows workers to accelerate their in-work progression, or shift into developing industries, but cost is a major barrier for many people. The IoD urges the Government to look at introducing a top-up on an individual’s personal income tax allowance if they are paying to increase their skills.”
The body of the report goes further by suggesting that there are a range of ways that lifelong learning could be financed. These range from credit options for workers to help them improve their education to tax incentives for employers and individuals. As menial jobs are replaced by automation there is no evidence that those jobs left will earn more this means that using loans and credits may not be a viable long-term approach.
A look at the current system for university education shows that an increasing number of students fail to earn enough to repay their loans for several years after graduating. This means that they have to carry a debt for years that also impacts their ability to buy a house and improve their standard of living.
This is a report aimed at the government rather than business but it is one that those at board level should take a good look at. When reading it they will need to look beyond the criticism of the government and decide what their role is to be in the future development of staff. While not as prominent as it should be, there is criticism of current approaches to staff training and it will be interesting to see which companies will choose to respond with details of their own training programmes.