Automation, education, and the future of work

OU’s David Willett discusses automation, apprenticeships and more.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

The automation of work is nothing new – since the Luddites destroyed their looms in the early days of the industrial revolution, there has been a balancing act between technological progress and fears over employment opportunities.

But the growth of technology is gathering pace, and the effect on our working lives is becoming more apparent. Everyone from Obama and Trump to the most prolific business leaders agree that we should be prepared as a society to deal with the rising tide.

PwC suggests that anywhere between 20% and 40% of jobs are potentially at risk of automation by 2030 – particularly low or semi-skilled roles – and economists agree that automation has played a far greater role in job losses, over the long run, than globalisation.

While educators have already begun to establish closer links with industry, in the future learning methods will need to become even more flexibile.

But, of course, few people want to stop technological progress. Indeed, most governments want to spur it on, recognising its transformative power in our ability to do business. So, the question becomes: how do we educate and train for a fast-changing business landscape and mitigate against high unemployment as a result of automation?

Education, education, education

The relentless pace of technological advancement means that employers and educators need to start laying the groundwork to encourage a more agile approach, rather than prioritising the development of narrow skill sets, which become irrelevent and out-dated. We need flexible and adaptable workers, who are able to morph to suit the changing workplace.

In the future world of work, it is likely that an individual will need to move from skill to skill with ease, with flexibility that will allow them to adapt to new or changing careers as opportunities come and go. But for this to become a reality, there needs to be a change in the way that we approach education and skills training.

While educators have already begun to establish closer links with industry, in the future learning methods will need to become even more flexibile. Practical, project-based learning, which emphasises applied knowledge rather than rote learning, will become the norm, and success will be measured not in grades, but in how well training has addressed business needs. 


Lifelong learning

A culture of lifelong learning is essential to encourage employees to develop their skills as they work longer and deal with rapidly changing technological landscapes. And this helps support not just new recruits but those already in work – those most at risk from the rising tide of automation.

With two-thirds of the workforce of 2030 already in employment, it is crucial that in-work learning becomes just as important as traditional schooling, so that workers are equipped with the skills they need to take advantage of new opportunities created by automation.

And the pace of change is so great that even those joining the workforce today will need to continuously update and evolve their skill sets over the course of their working lives, so that they too are not left behind.

With little time, and pressured work environments, we believe that distance and online flexible learning are likely to be key. Affordable for companies and more accessible for employees, the concept of anytime-anywhere learning is likely to further proliferate the employment landscape.

Apprenticeships will also form a vital part of the puzzle in this new learning landscape. The training now spans different levels – from GCSE level right through to master’s degree level – so employees can undertake multiple apprenticeships throughout their working lives, growing their skills and keeping their knowledge up-to-date.

And of course, the Apprenticeship Levy, which applies to employers in England, who have an annual pay bill above £3m, provides increased impetus to use the funds to help STEM skills shortages or to retrain employees for new job roles.

But it’s important that apprenticeships are delivered flexibly to fit around organisation’s demands, scalable for consistent training across multiple sites and provide high quality work-based learning for real organisational impact.

So, education and learning need to change significantly over the next decade to deal with issues raised by automation and the rise of advanced technologies.

And, while most conversations about the future of work focus on how new technologies and ways of working, such as artificial intelligence and the gig economy, will dramatically reshape modern industries, less is said on what we should be doing now to prepare for an unpredictable future.

The ‘future of work’ and the ‘future of education’ conversation are inherently linked, and educators, employers, employees and government must all work together to ensure that adequate pre-work and at-work education is provided to help us all cope with this unprecedented pace of change.


About the author

David Willett is corporate director at The Open University.



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