The labour market is currently going through what could justifiably be described as a seismic shift. You may well think from that statement that I’m about to talk about the potential implications of Brexit, or the effects of automation. Those issues are big, of course, and yet what I’m referring to is, in many ways, far more fundamental. It is all to do with the way that we perceive jobs, employment, qualifications and skills, and how the education sector responds.
Anyone who has lived through the last few decades will probably have noticed that the economy is far more complex than it once was. Where once people tended to have a job or a career for life, and employers tended to have a fairly rigid concept of the type of qualifications they were looking for to fill certain positions, much of that has now changed.
A number of things have served to drastically alter this picture. For one, a good many industries which once went to make up the backbone of communities are no longer there, and so the jobs-for-life have gone with them. Secondly, the huge technological shift that has occurred over the past 2-3 decades has fundamentally altered many of the types of jobs that are available. And thirdly, a cultural shift has taken place where few people now see themselves as wanting to do the same job throughout their working lives, but instead hope to do a variety of occupations utilising and adding to their skills as they go.
Put all of this together and what you have is a labour market where both the needs of employers and the aspirations of potential employees are – generally speaking – far more elastic than they once were. And the thing that joins these two things together is not qualifications and occupations. Rather, it is skills competencies.
Increasingly, employers are not so much looking for people to come in and fill the job vacancies they have; they are looking for people to come in and fill the skills gaps they have. They don’t so much want to know about the qualification that the applicant has – although that is of course still important – as whether the applicant has a set of skills that will make them a vital part of the future growth of their business. Put another way, they’re less interested in whether the applicant can come in and grow into their role, than they are interested in whether they can come in and grow the role around them, using the full range of skills they possess.
Just to give one example, our US team recently did a comprehensive analysis of the Manufacturing sector in America, which had been shrinking for decades, but which has actually been growing since the end of the 2008 recession. One of the most interesting findings of the report is that employers in the sector tended not to be looking for the kinds of traditional skills and qualifications one might expect in the industry, but rather people with a cross-cutting skillset that embraces both traditional production skills and engineering skills:
“After analysing hundreds of thousands of job postings, we observed that manufacturers need multi-functional engineering technicians possessing both traditional manufacturing and engineering skills. The result is that today’s high-value production worker is a hybrid of a boots-on-the-ground technician and an engineer laser focused on improving how things get done.”
This all makes for an employment market that is more fluid than the older model, with the nature of the work being done changing, often quite rapidly. All this is going to have massive ramifications for education institutions, in terms of what they train people for, how they train them, and how they help those they are training to understand the nature of the skills they are learning, and where they could lead them after graduating.
I discussed this issue at the recent Dxtera conference –Next Generation Student Success Symposium –, which was held in Barcelona. Dxtera, is part of the Strada Education Network which recently acquired Emsi, and is a non-profit consortium of higher education professionals, working together to solve critical higher education issues by collaborating to bring the access to information needed to transform student outcomes. Part of the information access that is currently lacking is connected with careers pathways, with the kind of intelligence given to young people often criticised for not actually giving them the objective insight into the labour market they need to make informed decisions.
After setting out how local and regional Labour Market Insight (LMI) is currently helping many colleges and universities in the UK to give more objective information to their students, I was asked to present my view of the future for careers information and career pathways. In my view, the number one thing that both colleges and universities need to start getting to grips with is how they respond to the way employers are seeing the world of talent which, as stated above, is becoming far less about a person’s qualifications than it is about their suite of skills, competencies, experiences and personality attributes.
The challenge I put to the audience was to reflect on how education is offered and understood, and how both universities and colleges can become more flexible in how they respond to the increasing flexibility of the labour market, particularly in the need for skills-focussed lifelong learning. Equally important is how they then convey this to students – getting them to think more about how the course they do is built from a suite of skills, as opposed to understanding it simply in terms of the qualification alone, and how this can benefit them as they look for employment, and as they seek to utilise their skills competencies in the jobs they do.
There is no doubt that the much of the employment landscape is undergoing a seismic shift, moving away from seeing the hiring talent in terms of qualifications and job titles, and moving towards seeing it far more in terms of skills competencies. Education institutions should be anticipating this shift by thinking about the skills that are embedded in their courses, how they align with the skills needed by employers, and how they can use this to help students understand the basket of skills they are learning, and how this relates to the world of work.
At the end of the day, the wealth of an economy is based not on the qualifications of its workers, nor the jobs that they do, but rather on the skills that are embedded in the workforce. Employers are increasingly recognising this. Education institutions need to ensure they do too.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article, and the issues it raises, email Andy Durman at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us by clicking on the button below.