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Reskilling, Upskilling and the Skills Gap

With many likely to continue to work until they are aged 70, reskilling and upskilling is expected to become the norm. Filling, funding and coordinating the skills gaps is a core challenge.

We can’t ignore the fact that our population is ageing. This raises fundamental questions around how to fund retirement. For many, retirement at age 65 is economically infeasible. We are also living longer, and few can fund a 30-year retirement with a 40-year career. It is likely that the UK pension age will move towards 70. In the meantime, those who are able to work choose not to move around and stay in the same role for longer, and many will prefer to stay in their community rather than retire abroad.

Many are already working past their traditional pensionable age – some out of financial necessity, others because they are keen to maintain a proactive role. Ageing societies have the potential to slow economic growth and increase the strain on the welfare state, so the government may be forced to consider taking action. Keeping people in the workforce is the obvious solution, but reskilling and upskilling is an ongoing challenge. The OECD estimates around one in three 55-to 65-year-olds lack computer experience or cannot pass technology tests. Such deficits in digital skills can be tackled with proper training, organised by the government, companies or the individuals themselves. Given the overall squeeze on jobs, expect discrimination in both retention and recruitment to be an ongoing challenge. As jobs change, people will be forced to adapt, with those with experience in a declining or obsolete sector obliged to retrain. This is not easy, so some may be unwilling or unable to do the work which becomes available.

Moreover, educational systems have not kept pace with the changing nature of work, resulting in some employers saying they cannot find enough people with the relevant skills. Too often, the future for which students were asked to prepare did not arrive, and there is a danger the same will happen with the futures we are told are ahead of us this time. Some propose that this can be addressed by a shift away from front-loaded education systems to ones where learning is more evenly distributed across a working life, so skills can be continuously updated in order to match our changing requirements. Rapid reskilling is needed, and this requires much shorter interventions and a different system to recognise those skills; expect microcredits to replace traditional degrees in many cases. Alternatively, a question recently raised was ‘what could a 20-year degree look like?’ – The view was that individuals will dip in and out of education when it best suits their career development and shifts.

In addition to how to learn, what we learn will also change. Rather than teaching how to do routine tasks for jobs that may not exist for much longer, the focus should be on acquiring those skills that computers cannot perform. As the UK recovers from Covid-19 and establishes more autonomous and resilient national production and manufacturing capabilities, production may become more localised, so there may be a greater requirement for skilled workers in engineering and associated trades. Alongside improvements around STEM, a greater concentration on soft skills is necessary, and we may see a new emphasis on creativity, as well as critical and systems thinking. Some organisations, such as consultancy firm Deloitte, believe that soft skill-intensive occupations will increase over the next decade, accounting for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030 (up from 50% in 2000), with soft skill-intensive jobs growing 2.5 times faster than other jobs. Given the emphasis on leadership, strategy, logistics and organisational skills within the Armed Forces, this is good news for those in transition. Ensuring they understand the commercial value of skills such as these, and are able to articulate them in a way which their civilian employers can understand, should be a key priority.

Some in the Armed Forces are well placed to take advantage of the training they receive while serving. This is not only for STEM skills but also for softer skills, “but only if personnel are able to display them with confidence and conviction.” And there’s the rub. Many in transition lack the confidence and skills necessary in a business environment. Although the MOD is the highest provider of apprenticeships in the country, it seems that “if this perception gap is not bridged, then some fantastic skills won’t be taken advantage of”. One solution would be to make the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) mandatory for all – including early Service leavers. As one workshop participant commented, “It’s not a new idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reconsidering”.

Finally, while it is clear that automation is transforming the workplace, previously secure jobs across myriad professions, from truck drivers to pharmacists, are now vulnerable, and those in transition will have to think carefully about which career to choose next. Given the MOD predicts the percentage of working age veterans is projected to increase from 37% in 2016 to 44% by 2028, greater focus should be given to ensure they have the skills, experience and appropriate qualifications to adapt to the new world of work. In the short term, with unemployment rising and the world economy shrinking, increasing automation could have significant negative impact. At a time when the CBI, the employers’ organisation, estimates nine out of ten will need to learn new skills for their own jobs by 2030, those in the Armed Forces should consider carefully what courses, roles and skill sets they should foster to prepare themselves better for civilian life.

Example Implication: Ensuring those in the Armed Forces are conscious of, confident in and able to clearly communicate their transferable skills when they enter civilian life is a priority.

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