Mind the gap: adult skills education must adapt to changing learner needs

Published: 1 August 2023

Four people sitting round a conference table, with laptops and notepads in front of them, looking like they are concentrating on something tricky.
Photo by yuliia
New research reveals seismic changes in job supply and employee demands with considerable repercussions for adult education. 

This article first appeared in FE Week.

The workforce and learner demographics landscape is rapidly evolving, driven by factors such as demographic shifts, technological advances, and the changing dynamics of the global economy. In 2015, people aged 60+ represented 12.3 per cent of the global population, but by 2050 this will have increased to over a fifth (21.3 per cent). Additionally, more and more people are moving towards entrepreneurship, favouring its autonomy and flexibility over traditional employment structures.

It is increasingly clear that our current systems – those that govern work, education, and the intersection of the two – are at odds with these seismic changes. There is a change in how we learn, upskill and consume information. The adult education sector must adapt to fill this gap with new, innovative ways of delivering training.

For a recent report for the City of London, Social Finance conducted research into Global Skills Trends and Best Practices and came across the following workforce and learner demographics trends that are changing the employment landscape and training requirements.

An ageing population at risk of exclusion

Although working longer has financial and non-financial benefits, recent digital and technological advances mean older people are at higher risk of being excluded from the workforce. Regular skill development boot camps for older adults in lifelong learning centres could optimise the demographic benefit.

The spring budget showed the treasury is aware of this with its introduction of returnships’ to motivate adults over 50 to rejoin the workforce. Elsewhere, India-based Magic Billion offers certified training to local talent, helping bridge skill gaps in nations with older populations. Collaboration with this kind of global expert could offer a temporary stop-gap and prevent an economic slowdown due to skill shortages.

Non-linear career paths

The notion of a career for life is waning, replaced by the rise of non-linear careers. Millennials in particular are leading this change, with over 21 per cent in the US having switched jobs in the past year, a threefold increase compared to non-millennials.

In the UK, millennials have held as many jobs as 55-year-olds have had in their entire careers. This trend is fuelled by a quest for better salaries, personal growth, work-life balance, and monetising hobbies. But job insecurity, the disappearance of industries and lack of progression also force frequent employment changes. Covid-19 has accentuated this trend.

Other systemic problems mean those spending significant time out of the workforce for reasons from parental leave to contact with the criminal justice system continue to face challenges when re-entering employment. For instance, only 23 per cent of those released from custody are employed six months later.

Whatever the reason, supporting such transitions with high-quality education and skills training at every life stage is crucial and requires collaboration between private trainers, employers, and government. Enhanced data collection would also help to track the challenges of those available to rejoin the workforce and refer them to existing services.

The age of entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurial activity among young people in the UK has doubled since 2000, with 53 per cent expressing a desire to set up their own businesses. This global trend sees individuals increasingly keen to turn hobbies into careers. Yet there’s a noticeable lack of training and support to capitalise on this upsurge in entrepreneurialism.

Unique programmes such as The Prince’s Trust’s Get Into offer potential solutions, with its hands-on training to support budding entrepreneurs. Likewise, Senart’s young creators programme offers invaluable mentorship aligned with participants’ goals.

Local government bodies can play a crucial role by fostering such practical learning programmes in collaboration with the private sector.

To tackle our already growing skills shortages and changing demographics, we need to re-envision an education sector where every learner, regardless age or circumstance, can learn, grow and contribute. To do that, we must respond to the trends shaping not only industry but the aspirations of individuals. Our report showcases various examples of how collaborative efforts are effectively narrowing the skills gap, and we must learn from their successes.

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