Skills agenda must prepare today’s workers for tomorrow, not tomorrow’s workers for today

Posted by Dinah Caine On 25 October 2018


Every sector and interest group complains that the current political preoccupation with Brexit means that less focus is being placed on their particular agenda.

But it is far from an overstatement to say that, just like every industrial revolution before it, the fourth industrial revolution will turn a lot of our assumptions about work upside down – not just for young people entering the workforce, but also for all of us already within it.

Touring the recent main party conference, I got a sense that the enormity of that challenge was beginning to be understood across the political spectrum.  

Where are the adults?

Part of the answer may lie in the recent recommendations of the Civic Universities Commission, an independent inquiry chaired by Lord Kerslake and supported by the UUP Foundation. The Commission’s interim report, published this week, concentrates on a key area of concern – adult education.

Flexible education was typically one of the founding principles of many of our universities. But adult education has faced a devastating decline in recent years. Across all courses, there are over 110,000 fewer students aged 25 and older in HE today than there were in 2012, and there has been a 42% decline in over-30s on non-degree HE courses over the same period.

The Commission believes this represents a material threat to the UK economy – at a time when many workers are facing the future loss of jobs through increased automation and other new technologies.

Creative licence

Such massive disruption will require people to retrain if the UK is not to continue to trail our international competitors. One area where the UK has traditionally excelled is across our creative industries.

The gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy by the Creative Industries in 2016 was £92m – more than the GVA of automotive, aerospace, oil, gas and life sciences combined. In terms of employment, every eleventh worker in the UK is in some form of creative job – together, the Creative Industries employ 700,000 more people than Financial Services, and that number is growing faster than the vast majority of other sectors.

What’s more, current wisdom suggests 87% of creative jobs are at no or low risks of automation – in comparison to around 45% across the rest of the economy.

Strangling arts pipeline

Contrast that scale of opportunity with what we are currently doing to support the creative talent pipeline. In schools, as a combined result of the emphasis on the EBacc, league tables and austerity, we are witnessing a massive decline in the take up of creative subjects both within and beyond the formal curriculum. The number of GCSE design and technology candidates has almost halved in the last two years. In music, half of the children in independent schools receive sustained music tuition, compared to 15% in state schools.

In the last industrial revolution, our leaders understood the need to bring science and arts together and to bring aesthetics to that which we built and produced – our famous arts and design schools grew out of that understanding.

STEM skills are important across different sectors, but currently tend to be associated only with a particular set of industries and occupations.

Indeed, we prioritise the teaching of STEM, separating the sciences from the arts and humanities – a division that only gets more embedded as students move to university, where we often reinforce the separation of business into another school.  

Today, we’re establishing apprenticeship standards that are completely job-specific, at a time of massive change where people will change jobs up to six times over their career.

Designing the future

Instead, we need flexible pathways for people of any age and stage to skill up for the revolution ahead, with proper loan and funding support.

We need official league tables that promote and incentivise a broad skills enhancement offer, rather than simply getting people into today’s “professional” jobs quickly.

We need to nurture the value that our artistic and creative pioneers of the future will bring to the UK economy in the coming decades. Creativity and innovation must be interwoven with STEM skills at all levels if we are to successfully navigate the future.

The world is turning in new ways, and all of us with a role in skilling the nation for the future must try harder to get ahead of that rotation to ensure our society, and our economy, will prosper in this new world.

Dinah Caine CBE is Chair of Council at Goldsmiths, University of London @GoldsmithsUoL, a member of the Creative Industries Council @CreativeIndsUK, and a member of the Civic University Commission.