Three Things Governments Should Do to Close the Global Skills Gap

Life Skills April 12, 2016

No generation in history has ever had the opportunity to radically enhance global economic equality for every individual on earth. It is, however, our gift, if we are willing to grasp it. The gift I speak of is the ability of our civilisation to educate everyone across the world online, from early adulthood, to a much higher level of educational achievement. This statement may seem overly ambitious, but it is not.

At ALISON, a pioneer in global online education since 2007, we see very great possibilities for the tools and infrastructure we have been building. Free online education is arguably the most powerful tool of modern humanity. It needs to be unleashed.

What underpins this potential are two technological developments: firstly, the growing presence of the internet worldwide. This connectivity allows us not only to learn or teach anything, anywhere, at any time for free, but also allows us to test any competence, knowledge or skill anywhere, at any time. Secondly, the smartphone, with 6.1 billion people expected to have one in their possession by 2020, affording extraordinary opportunity.

With these resources, and new business models such as we have developed at ALISON, those that know can teach those that do not know, and do so profitably. A simple fact is that people have a natural propensity and inclination to learn. However, we have been stopping people from educating themselves, and stopping those who can teach from having a wider impact. Our universities and colleges, almost without exception, provide education and training that is too expensive. ALISON’s mission is to drive all of the costs of education and skills training to zero.

The Status Quo

If such is the reality, why are governments and other institutions of societal leadership not embracing the opportunity of free online learning more robustly?

The reasons are several, but most manifestly, governments and advisors are looking in the wrong places for answers and asking the wrong people for solutions. To segue to a favourite example of mine: in 1900, 95% of US transport was enabled by the horse. In 1920, just 20 years later, 95% was powered by the motor car. How many saddle-makers and carriage makers made it into the business of making cars? You guessed it: none. In looking for solutions to the global skills gap crisis that we face, too many governments are seeking the advice of saddle-makers, those who only know the old way of doing things, and who have practically no capability of embracing the new imperative.

Furthermore, government officials and the powers-that-be underestimate the strength and influence of the current status quo in education in every country. Education is big business, and to date, has been highly political. Power over it has enabled the control of minds, and this control and the wealth it protects has been, and is, jealously guarded.

Finally, the education and learning sector is being filled with the noise of venture investors who declare they have arrived to innovate and bring profitable change. None, however, wish to drive the costs of education in all its facets towards zero, which digitization enables and therefore endangers the margins they need to optimise their financial return.

But just because new technology enables does not mean that behaviour will automatically change. We have seen from the use of CDs to video cassettes that better technology is not always grasped with immediate enthusiasm. Positive change for the betterment of society needs to be constructively encouraged.

Three Things Governments Could Do

Governments can play the leading role in bridging the skills gap within workforces worldwide, through three clear policies.

Firstly, they could mandate that free online informal learning becomes an integral part of any hiring decisions across public and semi-state recruitment. Evidence of successful free online learning achievement substantiates a candidate’s assertion that they are self-motivated, keen to keep their skills up-to-date, and are interested in being competitive and productive in the workplace. Were Governments to ask for such evidence, it would comprehensively deliver the message that free online lifelong learning is important, relevant and valued.

Furthermore, governments could specify that new hires must complete and successfully graduate from a series of free online courses related to their new position. This not only means new employees have higher skills levels and knowledge when they join state employment, a benefit to all tax payers, it also cements informal and lifelong online learning into the fabric of new employment hiring practices.

Secondly, Governments could, through economic or tax incentives, encourage private industry, from large corporations to small businesses, to follow suit and integrate free online learning into their hiring and employment practices across their organisations.

Finally, in most economies today, private corporations are left to their own devices in terms of staff training. The truth is however, that within many smaller businesses, there is very little training due to the additional cost, and even today, the availability and benefits of informal free learning are often not understood. In a world of free access to learning, testing and publishing tools, every place of employment could be mandated to proactively train their employees in the work that they are being asked to do to a certain level.

Encouraging business to create basic level online courses for training purposes will both make industry less reliant on others, including government, for its workforce training needs, and allow individuals to become more competitive, enabling them to make better choices in what they work at, and where they work.

Letting the Genie out of the Bottle 

Government policy can radically propel forward the rate of adoption of free informal online learning within an economy. Instead of tens of millions of people, billions of people can be persuaded in a short space of time to take advantage of the benefits of learning.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that most knowledge, skill, and competence mastered by workers is not learned through traditional academic institutions but from activity in the workplace itself. This is where the mother lode of human economic knowledge and skill resides. Through developing this knowledge into accessible online skills courses, we could unleash this gigantic resource to anyone willing and interested in upskilling worldwide. What we can expect with this online workplace learning revolution is that well-structured courses on every area of human work activity and task will find their way online.

For developing countries, in particular, these developments hold unique and massive opportunity. These countries cannot afford the slow and expensive legacy learning systems Western societies have used in the past. There are immediate imperatives to act in this regard.

Free online learning offers an extraordinary opportunity for greater global prosperity and economic equality worldwide. What is required is for leaders to step forward. Is that you?