Stop, start, sideways; that’s how adults learn

The jobs market of the future will be unrecognisable to most of today’s workers — education needs to grasp that to do best by its learners, says David Hughes, chief executive at NIACE.

I’ve just returned from a fascinating week in Australia where I took part in a major conference on the future of work. I was a guest of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency — formerly known as Skills Australia — which has three important ambitions that resonate with the challenges we face here.

They are to increase the number of people in work, improve productivity and support employers to utilise the skills of their workforces.

These are familiar ambitions, and the remedies and policies being adopted in Australia are strikingly similar to ours in England; although, interestingly, not necessarily that similar to those in Wales, Scotland or other EU countries.

What was also striking was the expectation of many people that policies in vogue here in the UK will soon become fashionable in Australia — an interesting view born of centuries of colonialism perhaps?

many people that policies in vogue here in the UK will soon become fashionable in Australia.”

The policy agenda is dominated by discussions on employability, vocational qualifications, funding cuts — which potentially will marginalise those with lower educational achievement — more employer-directed government funding, marketisation of the supply of learning and concerns about the so-called mismatch between what people choose to study and labour market needs.

The conference took place over two days at the Sydney Conference Centre in Darling Harbour. The really stimulating speakers speculated about how work will be organised and what skills people will need over the next 10 to 20 years.

Three issues will stay with me, as well as lots of new contacts and ideas.

The first was that predicting the future is not easy. Many speakers tried, and they provided very thought-provoking presentations, but the overriding impression was that there will be lots of sometimes rapid changes, and that there will be jobs, unimaginable to us today, that will be the norm in 10 years.

Some of the presentations reminded me of a great quote from US economist Dr Barry Asmus, who said: “Economists are pessimists — they’ve predicted eight of the last three depressions.”

The second issue follows on from the first: if the future is so hard to predict then we need to challenge learning policy which is narrowly-focused around technical competencies that are right for today’s jobs.

It seems clear to me people need a broader education to be able to adapt to changes in the labour market.

As part of my presentation I suggested that we should be helping people to learn so they can understand the changes happening around them, adapt to those changes and be able to cope with them.

Beyond that we should aspire to support people to manage and lead change rather than simply be subject to the changes. I would question whether this resilience to change comes from some of the more narrow vocational qualifications that are often on offer.

The third issue is the one I was asked to present on — the role of informal learning in workforce development and skills.

Very simply, I suggested that most successful people have learned more through informal learning than formal learning, and that we need to recognise how to support good informal learning for all, both in the workplace and in the community.

I went on to suggest that many negative experiences from schooldays meant that the only way to encourage people into learning was through informal learning, which tapped into their motivation and which usually would not lead directly and immediately into a clear vocational pathway.

I reinforced this with a description of the non-linear way in which many adults return to learning — it is often stop-start, upwards, downwards, sideways and it might take time to find what they want to learn and to translate that into skills for work.

It is a way of learning that we will all need to develop to help us embrace the unpredictability of the future.

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