No one knows just how fiercely the winds of automation will blow through our economies in the next decade or two. Estimates of the proportion of jobs likely to be lost range from half at the high end to only one in ten. But few doubt that millions of jobs will either disappear or change, from manufacturing to services and the professions.
These shifts have big implications for how young people are educated (see Nesta's project with Pearson). But hundreds of millions of adults will also have to learn new skills, from handling digital technologies to more human skills like how to collaborate, communicate or create.
As that reality dawns, attention will turn to adult education and retraining. In recent years they have been largely ignored and had their funding cut. That's set to change. Watch out for more talk of 'older workers' and 'adult skills', and the 'stock' as well as the 'flow' of learners. Watch out for ministers and policymakers talking about how the problem of low adult skills threatens not just the life chances of millions, but also the productivity of the economy as a whole; not to mention causing widespread feelings of disempowerment.
Millions of adults will have to learn new skills
There's a lot to be done. At the moment, support to help adults learn new skills is pathetically inadequate. As a rough generalisation the more skills you have, the more governments and employers spend on upgrading your skills, rather than the other way around.
What will be done?
As governments wake up, political parties will start competing and think tanks will start to offer solutions. These look set to be some of the battlegrounds.
First, expect to see new ideas about money. Singapore and France are showing the way. Both are offering adults personal accounts with which they can buy training (SkillsFuture in Singapore, and in France the Compte Personnel de Formation). The scales are quite modest – 150 hours in France and $500 in Singapore – which is far less than the thousands which subsidise university educations. But the numbers are set to rise.
Ideas are also likely to be floated about tax: some countries (again, including Singapore) use the tax system to encourage firms to invest more in their lower paid workers. Public finance is also likely to be needed to help people on low incomes take time out of work to upgrade their skills – watch out for proposals on rights to study leave.
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Next, we're likely to see new options for helping people choose the right courses, perhaps through new national agencies or services. There are many tools out there to help people assess their own skills, and discover what skills they need to get a new job. The Nesta-supported Skills Route app is a great example of a data-driven tool for guiding teenagers. Other tools include PathSource in the US Naviance, Uvisor and Career Cruising. But these are still a long way from being sufficiently well-informed or useful. A bolder, comprehensive and publicly supported solution may well be on its way, probably combining online help with funding for mentors and coaches.
Plugging the gaps
Where there are gaps, governments will have to show that they know how to fill them. Much is already known about some of these – like the glaring shortage of skills in fields like data. Some of the gaps will be filled with new online courses. In the UK, Ufi's Learn Direct was about two decades ahead of its time, with an online platform providing a wide range of short and longer courses, alongside local centres, to a million people at its peak. Futurelearn is a recent example, which emerged out of universities, and now has over five million users, despite at best lukewarm support from government. Watch out for these becoming much more visible, better funded and talked about.
The elites in politics and the media have generally done pretty well out of education. So this is territory that is much less motivating for them than more marginal issues like grammar schools. But with 55 per cent of workers across the OECD lacking basic competencies it is beginning to matter politically. The combination of potential job losses from automation, and angry voters will be hard to ignore.
No countries have got this right, though Scandinavia has some fine traditions of adult education. But the UK has got it particularly wrong. Despite some great traditions – from the WEA to the Open University – further education colleges and adult education sit right at the bottom of the pile at the moment. They're low-status, underfunded and derided. Despite some tentative moves with adult apprenticeships and adult learner loans, UK public funding has fallen over a third since 2010 and employers see little reason to invest in the skills of their lower-paid staff. As a result, many people get stuck on the lower rungs of the jobs ladder.
Public finance will be needed to help people on low incomes take time out of work to upgrade their skills
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This is an issue whose time is coming. Necessity is likely to be the mother of invention in a field where social policy, industrial policy and educational policy come together. The rhetoric will change first. But it's action that will count, and this will be one area where we'll find out if prime minister Theresa May is serious about helping struggling families on low incomes, or whether it's all hot air.