Skills: fit for the future

As part of Community’s campaign around ensuring our members and the wider workforce have the skills they need to succeed in the future, Community’s research team recorded a podcast talking about the future of skills. You can listen to the podcast here:


See the transcript of the podcast here:

Anna: How can we make sure that our skills are fit for the future?

In this short podcast I’ll be finding out more about the importance of skills in the UK and what that means for all of us.

First, I spoke to Kate Darden, Head of research, Policy and Politics at Community Union. I wanted to get her views based on the research that Community has done on this topic.

Hi Kate, thanks very much for joining. So, let’s get started then. Can you tell us, what is the problem with skills in the UK?

Kate: We know that prior to the pandemic, employers were facing skills shortages and that nationwide we faced a huge mismatch between the skills that workers held and the skills they actually needed to be able to succeed in their jobs.

A report by the industrial strategy council earlier in the year found workers are even more likely to be over-skilled or under-skilled by 2030. And 80% of the workforce are already in work today (of that 2030 workforce) so it’s a huge problem.

The report also found that an additional seven million workers could be under skilled for their jobs, and that’s around 20% of the current labour market. So, it obviously matters a great deal to our economy, and comes at a really high cost, actually, to employers and workers alike.

So that skills mismatch is a huge problem in the UK which impacts pay and living standards and even job satisfaction for workers as well.

But the UK’s also got one of the lowest levels of government and business investment in adult training amongst OECD countries. So, reskilling of the existing workforce will be one of the major challenges between now and 2030.

In addition to that the nature of work and careers are changing fast, and those skills are the new currency in the world of work and will be absolutely critical as we come to revive post COVID Britain.

Once we’d, kinda, determined what the problem was, I know there was another report, that looked at what needed to be done to solve the skills challenge in the UK.

I’ve seen that the report calls for employers to invest in training and to champion learning, and for local partnership, and it’s all about a strong campaign for lifelong learning.

And we know that Roy, Rickhuss, Community’s general secretary was heavily involved in that report. Clearly, it’s an important issue for Community and its members. Can you explain exactly why it matters so much?

We think that the current government policies and initiatives targeting the areas where skills mismatches could occur are just not sufficient in scale to address those skills gaps that are predicted, as well as which workers are currently being impacted.

In addition to that, the context in which we’re operating in, with the pandemic and with the financial crisis that we’re looking towards, increases the urgency for which partners in the skills system need to adapt and respond, including us as a Trade Union.

But it also amplifies the need for a clear overarching vision which can guide skills partners to work together and adapt to rapidly changing skills demands. And as part of that, increased engagement of Trade Unions and employers in both the design and implementation of skills provision will be crucial, and key in driving up participation in job related training. And, actually, cultivating a lifelong learning culture.

Union learning funds were a prime example, and route to creating that culture. They provided vital support for workers to develop in their careers, reskill for new jobs or roles, and actually learn skills as well.

Unfortunately, this month the government announced plans to cut that union learning fund the £12 million funding which does support workers to develop at work. And we’re campaigning against those cuts and think it is going against what government should be doing with workers and with partners, creating a lifelong learning culture to actually address the challenges we do face in the skill system.

And we think that social partners need to play a greater important role in education and training in the UK and that’s something we should be working towards and not cutting back from.

And then most importantly, we think that workers must be agents throughout the changing work landscape and our economy. With the demand for more existing skills as well as new skills change cannot be something that just simply happens to workers. It has to be with them and for them. That’s one of our key messages as well, why it’s important for us, and why Roy was really proud to lead that report as a member of the industrial strategy council.

At the most recent Community conference, skills was voted to be a flagship campaign for the union. Can you tell us a bit about what that campaign has looked like in practice?

Yes, so our campaign is called “your skills, your future”. Our members chose this campaign, it’s led by them, and we want this campaign to be as empowering for members as possible. And our members can better identify where their skillsets lie, and how they can better understand their skills.

But we also encourage members to take ownership of their own skills, if they do need to transition in their careers, or with the changes that we’re seeing to our economy and workplaces. That’s why over the past few months we’ve been working with Worker Bird, who are an innovative tech for good start-up, that aims to improve working conditions for millions of workers across the UK. So we’ve been working with them but also with Community members from sectors all across the union to see if the language we use is correct, if the questions we’re asking work and even if the design of the assessments fits and is accessible for all our members.

And we’ve come up with a skills assessment for every single Community member to take part in.

So, we use basically a database from across Europe: it’s the European Skills Competencies Qualifications and Occupations database and that identifies and categorises different skills, competencies, qualifications, that are relevant for our labour market and education. Members will be able to access the assessment, search for their current job role and then be presented with their essential skills that they use day to day in their roles. And then members themselves will assess themselves against each of the sort of essential skills, and how confident they feel in that skill. But also look at optional skills for their role as well, and then assess themselves against that.

But we’re also going further in the assessment and asking members about their literacy, numeracy and digital skills. And where there are gaps, we’re looking to signpost members to our brilliant learning team at Community who are able to provide resources, and further support and learning and training opportunities.

We feel like getting union members new skills has always been part of trade unionism, and this campaign is kicking off by doing just that.

And also, once members complete the assessment, they will also receive a download, a skills passport of their current skills they can access whenever they need it.

So, following the skills assessment we’re going to be looking to continue to get more members and employers involved in the campaign. And using this assessment will be the basis for a dialogue on workplace learning with employers; how we can provide a more tailored offer from Community learning and identify those gaps. And, actually, establish the level of support members do need to excel in their skills in their current jobs.

And the aim of the campaign as a whole is to take members on a journey of their skills that they need for the future and their future roles to thrive in their work and their personal lives as well.

We’re really keen to create a positive skills culture to help our members transition and change and upskill if they need to.

So, I’m here with Caroline Taylor, national secretary at Community Union. So, Caroline, what should people expect to happen to their jobs in the next 10 years? How do you think they will change?

Caroline: Well that’s a huge question Anna, and it’s going to be different for everyone. However, you only have to look at how much change has happened in the last 10 years as well as more specifically this year to know that the pace of employment change isn’t going to slow down. The way we work now is very different to the way we worked five years ago for example. Not only is technology changing rapidly, but the human need for a better work life balance is also a huge driver for workplace change.

For example, in my last job, I used to drive all round the country with a map, and sticky notes telling me where to go. Fast forward five to ten years later and everyone’s got satnavs in cars; you just type in address and off it goes. And then moving forward again another five to ten years and they’re looking at driverless cars.

But I think more specifically, if you look at the last six months, organisations would never have thought that they would be getting their whole workforces to work from home, and getting them to use more digital tools than they’ve ever used before to keep their organisations running. And people have adapted to that so I think if they could do that in such a short space of time, it just shows, I think, that change is going to carry on moving rapidly.

Obviously, people will need to change some of the skills that they have to keep up with the pace of change that’s getting faster and faster. I wanted to ask; do you think that people across the UK are taking skills seriously enough?

I think it’s more a case of are people clear and understanding what their current skills are and what they may need for the future. There tend to be a lot of people who are happy doing their current role, and don’t ever think that they want to do something else, but they don’t realise, one, the skills that they use every day and what those actually are, and also what would they do if their job was to change?

It’s a bit like, putting it in simple terms, like a MOT or service for your car. I think people should regularly think and re-evaluate what the skills they use in their current jobs, what ones they’ve picked up in the current year, to understand what it is they do, and also that build up of skills that they’ve got; that they can adapt, and re-use and change if they need to.

For example, I guarantee that there’s a lot of people this year who wouldn’t even have thought about how they use Teams or Zoom or Skype as much as they have had to, and learnt all the different skills that they’ve needed in this scenario. So I think it’s more a case of people thinking, well actually, should they keep some sort of record of all the skills they build up, because even stuff they use in their day to day life rather than just their jobs will be important moving forward.

And what about the kind of people who are maybe already very highly skilled, so for example they’ve got a degree, even multiple degrees, or you know professional qualifications, say in accountancy. Do people in these kinds of scenarios also need to worry about this?

Yeah, I think, worry’s probably a wrong word. But maybe, mindful. Education, and courses, qualifications, they do date and they do need to be kept refreshed regularly as well.

And I think, just because you’ve got a degree in a certain subject, doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up or learn new skills that either link to or complement your degree. Often skills and experience that we pick up doing the job are just as valuable as the qualifications that you get. And somebody who is academic, who can know the ins and outs of something might not necessarily have the hands-on capacity or the skills to put in place, and so actually learning those can only complement what they’ve already got.

So, I think it’s not necessarily worry, but just be mindful of how the world is changing. It doesn’t mean that just because you got a degree 20 years ago it’s still going to be relevant today.

So then thinking about that, obviously, skills can be quite a broad term, so how does somebody go about understanding what skills they are going to need for their job in the future and what the skills they currently have in their job might be?

Most jobs will probably have job descriptions in terms of being able, so when you apply for jobs, they know roughly what the skills that they’re expecting. But actually, when you actually get down to doing those jobs you realise there are actually more skills and more things that use to do that.

And I think maybe monitoring it and noting it down even in terms of a bit of a skills passport, or much like you do with your CV, just noting down what it is you need to do that job. But a lot of the times it can be attitudes and behaviours, it doesn’t just have to be about your skills, because those can be learnt.

So, if you’ve got an open enough attitude and mind to learning and picking up things actually the skills that you need for further roles you can pick them up. It is about retaining that knowledge and ability to pick up new skills.

So, it’s not always the hard sort of skill that you want first thing that matter, it’s those softer skills, and actually the learning mindset that could be the most important?

Yeah, and I think you can look at a list on a job description and say “yep” I can do all of those, but it’s the nuances behind that that actually help you do the job well, that you pick up and learn throughout. And actually, acquire the extra skills and attributes that you need to do that.

And finally, then, what would your advice be to somebody who might be starting to think about their future skills needs?

I think the first step is to start with what you already know. List down what you know you do and the things that you do without thinking. I guess from a perspective of you’ve been doing your job for a while, you do these things in the same way that you get in your car and drive off without thinking, it becomes a habit. And you sometimes dismiss those as valuable skills, but they are. So, for me I would say potentially keeping a skills profile and updating it regularly.

And it might not be stuff you do in your role, it could be stuff you do outside of work, for example if you volunteer with your local guide organisation and you happen to do the finances for it, or you organise their events. They’re all skills that you build up as part of your everyday life that can be useful in other roles as well.

So for me I think it is about keeping up to date with what you’ve got, noting skills that you think you have and looking actually at the bits that you enjoy or where you can improve them or where potentially you can expand on them. And knowing what you’ve already got gives you the ability to know where you can learn, to improve, or to move onto other roles. Once you’ve got a skills base to look at it will help you develop the ability to see what it is where you need to grow.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. I really appreciate it and I hope it’s given you some food for thought about skills and the future. I know that it’s made me think more about what I’ll need to do to get ready.

If you want to join Community and shape our approach to the conversation around skills, you can join us here today.

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