More than six million people in the UK are currently employed in occupations that are likely to change radically or disappear entirely by 2030, according to a report released today by innovation foundation, Nesta. Dubbed: “Precarious to prepared: A manifesto for supporting the six million most at risk of losing their jobs in the next decade”, the report warns that, without immediate action, the danger is that these people will be trapped in insecure, low-value, low-pay employment – or worse, forced out of work altogether.

It is easy in the job market to be caught out, to end up in a position where your skills are no longer needed. As the rate of technological change accelerates, so the risks increase. There’s been plenty of examples, back to the industrial revolution, but also more recently. Such as the video repairman who’s job disappeared almost overnight with the arrival of the DVD player. Or computer programmers who find themselves with the wrong coding skills.

As the Nesta report emphasises, new skills will be needed but action must be immediate, to align education and training. There is a systemic issue here. Many people in low-paid work – or who are not working at all – are unable to access the information they need to plan for the future nor can they access the relevant training they need for new skills. They also tend to work in places and industries that are likely to lose out over the next decade, making it harder than ever for them to access good jobs.

What Needs to be Done?

The report says: “Without guidance on which skills are going to be needed, many workers face stagnant pay and low social mobility. Meanwhile, businesses are unable to find workers with the right skills”.

Big data can help. In a separate study last year specifically looking at digital skills – https://www.nesta.org.uk/report/which-digital-skills-do-you-really-need/ – Nesta analysed 41 million job adverts. Among its findings, it suggested the following:

Five promising digital skills

  1. Animation;
  2. Multimedia production;
  3. Design in engineering;
  4. Building and maintaining IT systems and networks;
  5. Research and quantitative data analysis.

Five of the least promising digital skills

  1. Invoice processing and management of accounts using accounting software;
  2. Data input and preparation of payroll and tax reports;
  3. Clerical duties (e.g. typing, using a word processor, spreadsheets, email and calendar software);
  4. Sales support and processing of orders in sales management systems;
  5. Stock and inventory management using inventory control systems.
Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Learning needs to fit individual needs and circumstances. “Individual barriers to learning must be tackled both through design of training (which needs to be tailored to the learner) and additional rights and entitlements that enable more at-risk workers to participate in learning.” People in low-paid work often don’t have the time, motivation or money to undertake training. Those in temporary or precarious employment, or those who are unemployed, often miss out completely because training is usually provided by employers.

Among a slew of recommendations, the report suggests initial annual entitlements of £500-£1500 supported by rights to paid time off, and shared learning, along the lines of experiments in countries such as Canada, France and Singapore.

It also suggests a cross-departmental agency or partnership bringing together policymakers, employers, unions and training providers to address challenges in the work and skills arena. This would be along the lines of the Danish Disruption Council1 and the Dutch Technology Pact.

Probably the most fundamental recommendation is for a major shift in emphasis in school education, towards a much wider range of skills, including social and emotional skills and creativity.

Working with Pearson and Oxford Martin School of Business, Nesta research has shown there will be high demand for interpersonal skills, such as collaboration and coordination; higher-order cognitive skills, including fluency of ideas and originality; and systems skills, such as judgement and decision making.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Recent OECD research – http://www.oecd.org/education/fostering-students-creativity-and-critical-thinking-62212c37-en.htm – shows the UK still clings much too strongly to rote learning whereas countries like Japan and China have shifted to a much greater emphasis on understanding and critical thinking.

However, it is not just about making sure people have access to skills and training to get into any job – those jobs need to be good, rewarding ones. For this, the job-enriching practices of innovative firms need to be spread across the economy and applied to workers across different types of employment contracts.

Too many people work in parts of the economy, such as retail or care services, that are at risk of being devalued and left behind. It is clear that many new jobs created in the UK in recent years are low quality. According to Eurofound data, two-thirds of the jobs created in the UK between 2011-15 were at the low-paid end of the spectrum and were less secure, offering only part-time or temporary contracts or self-employed work.

Old norms are already breaking down. Recent research by YouGov – https://yougov.co.uk/topics/economy/articles-reports/2018/08/24/over-nine-ten-not-working-usual-9-5-week – found that fewer than six percent of UK workers now work nine-to-five, with 42 percent already working ‘flexibly’.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing massive disruption. Automation, robotics and changing labour markets are set to transform not only jobs and wages, but also how we value different skills and kinds of work. Reaction to this cannot be a passive one. Work is such a pivotal part of our societies, it underpins equality, health, happiness and well-being. As such, it needs far more innovation, government intervention and serious analysis than it is attracting at present. Within this report and its wider work around skills and employment, Nesta is an important contributor to the way forward.