If we want a thriving economy, we need to rethink education

Posted: 9th June 2023

Given the scourge of inflation, it’s not surprising that the economy remains at the forefront of politicians’ and voters’ minds. We need economic stability and growth. Views vary on how to achieve these — from hands-on interventions to laissez-faire policies — but there’s a broad consensus that UK business will play a key role: whether supporting jobs, creating products and services, attracting investment or driving industry.

What’s sometimes less overt is the role education plays in growing the economy. Or to put it another way, the risk of suffocating the economy if education doesn’t evolve in step.

By education I mean everything from early years learning through to schools, colleges and universities, as well as professional qualifications, and training in work and outside it — essentially life-long learning.

Despite having a world-renowned education system, and all these different avenues for learning, something isn’t working — based on 85 per cent of companies we surveyed saying they are experiencing or expect skills shortages in their sectors. Fifty per cent said that their organisation would be more productive if the education system was better tailored to future employment.

Without a concerted effort these challenges are set to get tougher. Separate PwC research indicates businesses are readying for a radical transformation. Almost a quarter of chief executives in the UK (and a similar proportion globally) believe their business model will cease to be viable within a decade unless they change what they do.

This reinvention won’t be possible without the right skills. In some cases, businesses require something very specific — 41 per cent of employers mentioned shortages in skills to support their transition to net zero. For others (about 35 per cent), it’s more about core competencies in reading, numeracy, and writing. These remain the bedrock for any job.

But what’s coming more to the fore, and something I recognise in my business, are the softer and interpersonal skills essential for business today. These include problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and curiosity and agility. A shortage of these soft skills risks becoming a hard issue for the British economy.

The AI advancements of the past six months alone accelerate this need. So-called large language models that can understand and generate human prose require people with a broad mix of skills to get the most out of them; not just making sure a chatbot comes up with the right answer, but being able to check it and add additional insight on top.

Narrowing the curriculum — for instance, overweighting digital skills — isn’t the answer. We can’t predict the jobs of the future, but we can predict the mindset and soft skills to adapt. Ultimately we should be instilling a love of learning and relevant abilities; being too prescriptive risks putting people off education and narrowing the number of lifetime learners.

Given AI’s potential to turbocharge productivity — and the prime minister’s eagerness for the UK to be at the forefront of responsible AI — equipping people with this mindset should be a priority.

Businesses know this is their responsibility as much as anyone’s. More than one in five businesses we spoke to ranked young people getting more practical work experience as the curriculum change that would have the greatest impact.

We’re seeing the benefits of this via our degree apprenticeships, whereby students combine a university or college education with work at the firm. Students receive a salary, as well as funding for their tuition fees. All the practical experience means they hit the ground running when they start work full-time; they have not just the know-how but the confidence to thrive.

A number of big employers offer similar programmes and the vast majority (85 per cent) of businesses are keen to collaborate more with schools and colleges on pathways from education to employment.

Coaching and skills development also needs to crank up once people start work. AI will likely fast-track the careers of PwC trainees from Year 1 to Year 3, so we’re looking at how we can increase training to equip people for more responsibility sooner.

Of course, ensuring people learn what they need is just one part of the education equation. The other part is having sufficient people to learn. The UK still has more than a million job vacancies. Improving education also has to be about increasing aspiration and access to opportunities.

Like most businesses, we need to plug certain skills gaps, but at least we aren’t short of applicants — receiving 304,000 last year for 7,500 roles. I’d love to say this was down to our magnetism, but the truth is that we work hard to get ourselves in front of talented people who might not otherwise have heard of us. By casting our net wider, such as expanding our offices to less-advantaged areas, we have more choice and can expand economic opportunity further afield. We’ve had most success where we’ve worked alongside local government and educators. Collaboration is critical.

Education and economic growth go hand in hand — they need to be an equal priority.

Source: If we want a thriving economy, we need to rethink education (thetimes.co.uk)

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