The Future of Work Means “Learning to Re-learn”

This article was originally published on 3 January 2019 on the website of the Asian Development Bank.

Five steps we can take to ensure that school-leavers are ready to enter the workforce that awaits them in the future.

The US economy has been booming, with low unemployment and rising wages. But as the curtain came down on 2018, we saw wild fluctuations in the stock market and signs of a slowing economy.

As we enter the New Year, there is all the more reason for an intensified focus on developing plans for how workers need to be skilled for the jobs of tomorrow — and putting those plans, with accompanying investments, into action.

Of course, these challenges are not limited to the United States. Indeed, economies in Asia and the Pacific must also adapt, as highlighted in the 2018 Asian Development Outlook (ADO).

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report published in November notes that technological advances will profoundly affect societies in Asia. Embracing and adapting to technological change will determine whether countries can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, a recent piece in The New York Times, highlighted that young people need to learn to prepare for a new working world.

Here are some steps we can take to ensure that school-leavers are ready for the workforce that awaits them.

1. Anticipate and capitalize on new opportunities for employment

Many labor-intensive sources of jobs in manufacturing will be less suitable for the new technology-driven era. In fact, the UNDP report estimates that about 85% of the jobs that today’s students will hold in 2030 do not currently exist. This means governments should not rely on existing drivers to generate economic growth and jobs, but should instead work to anticipate potential new sources of growth, and be ready to seize emerging opportunities.

For example, foresighted countries are trying to put their economies on a more environmentally sustainable path. This can usher in a whole range of jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and recycling. Worldwatch Institute estimates that the People’s Republic of China can generate at least 4.5 million green jobs in energy, transport, and forestry in 2020.

2. Develop flexible training systems

Education systems should continually adapt and retrain workers because the future of work requires lifelong and agile learning. Countries need to create a culture where people undergo retraining several times over their career, where they can have the option to shift into new sectors and try out new jobs or tasks within sectors.

This supposes that a worker’s continuous education and training will happen in parallel with their full-time work, so content must be provided in a format that is short, convenient, and mobile. Shorter online education and training programs are emerging in response to this growing demand.

The ADO cites new initiatives — such as the Gnowbe in the US and Singapore, and Funzi in Finland — that use a “mobile microlearning” model. This model relies on gamification, short videos tailored to modern attention spans, quizzes interspersed in learning materials, and learners’ social interaction.

3. Rethink ‘foundational skills’

It used to be that foundational skills only included basic reading, writing, and numeracy. Today, though, they have grown to encompass two more categories: social and emotional skills, and digital literacy. In a technology-driven economy, these skills build on each other to promote further learning. An OECD study found that high social and emotional skills are associated with better reading, writing, and numeracy skills, and that solid reading, writing, and numeracy skills are a prerequisite for digital literacy.

Digital literacy is fast becoming indispensable for such everyday functions as digital finance and e-government, as well as further education and lifelong learning. It includes both the ability to use digital devices and platforms, and knowing how to use them appropriately.

Schools and training programs need to adapt curricula and learning materials for traditional subjects to integrate digital technologies. In parallel, educators must train to adapt pedagogical practices and understand how to use digital technologies to support learning.

4. Explore new ways to learn

Several months ago, I visited Arizona State University (ASU), named the most innovative university in the US for four years in a row. It provides a prime example of how an educational institution can harness technology to advance learning. ASU has employed adaptive learning styles through artificial intelligence and big data, social learning through digital platforms, immersive learning through virtual reality, augmented reality, and gamification to provide personalized learning for every student.

ASU students are provided with a computer-based adaptive learning system that provides personalized feedback and suggests learning pathways based on their performance. The university also goes beyond the typical classroom setting by providing support, such as online videos on numerous subjects produced by the Khan Academy, which is available for free to students and teachers.

5. Focus on relevant skills in a technology-driven economy

The ADO also observed that specialized skills are likely to depreciate quickly, particularly in a time of fast-evolving technology, and thus require regular updating and upgrading. Given this, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and higher education systems must expand to accommodate the rising number of graduates, as well as adults seeking to upgrade their skills or retrain.

Institutions need to constantly update the training and education they provide to respond to fast-changing labor market demand. Many countries are developing credit transfer systems to enable TVET graduates to pursue higher education — allowing, for example, a technician to become an engineer — and university students to choose a more vocationally oriented track. This is an important step toward expanding skillsets across the workforce.

Governments, academe, the private sector, and civil society need to put a premium on innovation in developing and sharing skills within schools, training institutes, and the workforce. Updated educational and training tools and approaches that utilize new technologies are essential to equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in a dynamic economy that demands both something more, and something different.

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