Valerie Hannon: “New skills and capabilities are needed to thrive in this new world of work”

Life Skills January 05, 2014

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) nearly 75 million young people are unemployed around the world, an increase of more than 4 million since 2007 (they do not expect this to have changed significantly by 2016). At the same time increasing numbers of young people are entering the labor market, meaning that 80 million jobs will be needed over the next two years to restore pre-financial crisis levels of employment.

The global economic crisis has undoubtedly had an impact on levels of unemployment. But, whilst recognizing the devastating effects of the recession and doing all we can to tackle it, we must not ignore the underlying structural problems that are preventing young people finding work, and older workers from keeping their jobs. Chief among these is the failure of education systems to adapt to dramatic changes in the world of work.

This story is not new: Improvements in communications technology and increases in global completion give rise to outsourcing and contracting; digitization (the substitution of humans by technology) wipes out many routine ‘white-collar’ jobs in developed countries and results in dramatic shifts in comparative advantage; developed economies become increasingly reliant on high-value, knowledge-based assets.

New skills and capabilities are needed to thrive in this new world – dominated by knowledge-intensive, highly sophisticated, service-based industries in which an employees value is not defined by his ability to perform tasks and regurgitate knowledge, but on his ability to apply this knowledge in creative ways to solve increasingly complex problems.

And what of the education systems that are obliged to provide people of all ages with the means to play an active part in the knowledge economy? Only recently have people begun to question what the changes outlined above mean for learners and the systems that teach them.

Learning a Living: Radical Innovation in Education for Work, aims to make a meaningful contribution to this debate. The book explores in depth a series of innovations from around the world, each seeking to prepare their learners for the world of work, each seeking to make up for the limitations of the system within which these learners are educated, or in some cases, completely replace it. Having travelled to five continents and spent time getting to know the innovators and their innovations, it became clear that although each was unique in terms of both context and approach, there were strong commonalities in terms of the assumptions that underpinned their work.

These commonalities were so striking that they soon became the focus of the book and the foundation of our thinking:

  • The first was that the types of skills people needed to be successful in the world of work are changing and education systems are ill-equipped to provide them. The high-level technical skills needed to succeed in the renewable energy industry, the complex communication skills needed in sophisticated service economies, or the sustainable agriculture techniques needed by farmers in Nigeria, are crucial for workers from the developed and developing worlds alike.
  • The second was that skills alone were not enough. People needed to learn how to apply these skills in increasingly complex ways to solve increasingly complex problems. The great challenges of the 21st century (climate change, resource scarcity, ageing populations and many more) also present the most significant economic opportunities since the discovery of oil and the invention of the combustion engine, a fact not lost on the Chinese government (which has prioritized investment in renewable energy, information technology, new materials among others). For workers to flourish in this context they need to be able to tackle complex challenges in new and creative ways. Alongside the technical skills necessary to perform a particular task, widows in Ghana need to tackle social stigma and cultural resistance, farmers in Africa need to understand the interdependencies between water scarcity, soil degradation and pesticide use, coming up with new ways to tackle all three, and steel workers in the North of England need to develop an understanding of sustainable materials and how these can be used in the context of wind turbine manufacturing (for example).
  • Finally each innovation is underpinned by the conviction that the speed with which our world is changing requires workers capable of spotting emergent challenges before they arise, workers with the entrepreneurial spirit to design solutions to these challenges, and workers with the resilience to take a stand against out-dated business models. This is not about teaching people how to become entrepreneurs, but rather about encouraging them to be entrepreneurial (whether they are starting their own business or uncovering a new market for their employer). It moves away from a model in which learners ‘consume’ knowledge and skills – to one in which they become the producers.

In many ways the innovative educators, upon whose creativity and resilience these innovations are built, represent the kinds of worker we so desperately need in the 21st Century, and the kinds of worker education systems need to start producing.