Reskilling the UK in the face of AI growth

The government has introduced the National Retraining Scheme alongside funding to tackle the UK’s growing tech skills gap, but will it be enough in the wake of artificial intelligence adoption?

The need for reskilling and retraining due to the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technology will be massive, affecting more than 120 million workers across the world’s 12 largest economies, according to IBM’s Institute for Business Value.

In a report entitled The enterprise guide to closing the skills gap, the institute indicated that while only 41% of employers have the required people, skills and resources in place to execute their business strategies effectively today, the situation will only get worse as demand for new – particularly soft – skills continues and expertise focused around repetitive, rules-based activities becomes progressively obsolete.

“By 2030, the global talent shortage could reach more than 85 million people,” the study says. “To be clear, the issue is not a shortage of workers, but a shortage of workers with the right skills.”

To make matters worse, although the so-called “half-life” of professional skills was formerly estimated at between 10 and 15 years, the half-life of a learned skill today is estimated to be a mere five years, and is potentially even less for technical expertise. So skills learned now will only be half as valuable in five years’ time, which means that finding ways to continually update and refresh them will become an increasing imperative.

Another concerning trend is that the time needed to close skills gaps using traditional training approaches, such as classroom and virtual learning, has increased by a factor of 12 – from three days in 2014, to 36 days in 2018.

This shift has been attributed to a number of causes. For example, some highly desirable skills, such as data analysis, are technical in nature and so inevitably take time to acquire using structured learning methods. Soft skills such as time management and being adaptable to change – skills that are not easily emulated by machines and are now top of employers’ wish lists – are actually best developed using approaches such as coaching or mentoring, which is not an overnight process.

This current interest in soft skills is in marked contrast with the situation only a few years ago when basic computer and software/application skills, as well as core science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) expertise, were considered most useful.

But given that Ginni Rometty, IBM’s chair, chief executive and president, among others, predicts that jobs roles will become more fluid and every type of job in existence today will be changed by AI in some way over the next five to 10 years, such a change of focus is not entirely surprising.

Nonetheless, as the UK’s Confederation of British Industry (CBI) points out in its own report entitled An upskill battle: The importance of lifelong learning in a modern economy, the investment required to tackle these challenges “should not be underestimated, particularly to prepare millions of currently low-skilled adults for the new future of work, who are expected to be most exposed to the risks of automation”.

Reskilling UK workers

A recent study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looked into automation in the workplace.

It found that the UK has a higher percentage of workers (13.7%) than the OECD average of 10.9% who will require moderate training of up to a year to transition from an occupation at a high risk of being automated out to one with a low or medium risk.

A further 2.6% would also benefit from more than three years of training to find an entirely new role, it says.

The report also found that the British workers most exposed to the risk of automation generally received less training than higher skilled workers whose posts were more secure. While around 50% of low-risk workers had received training over the past 12 months, the figure fell to one in seven for those in low-risk jobs.

So with this worrying situation in mind, the UK government piloted a scheme earlier this year to do something about it. The National Retraining Scheme (NRS), which is being funded to the sum of £100m, will consist of a number of initiatives intended to help workers adapt.

The first one called Get Help to Retrain is focused on supporting adults who are 24 years old or above, do not have a degree, and are on a low or medium wage. Using a blend of online and face-to-face training, the idea is to help them improve their maths, English and technical skills.

Qualified national careers service advisers will also be available to offer guidance about potential new roles and opportunities, and will be overseen by the National Retraining Partnership, a body consisting of representatives from the government, CBI and Trades Union Congress.

The scheme is being trialled in Liverpool, Leeds, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the West Midlands, North East and the Heart of the South West growth hub area, and is expected to be rolled out to all eligible adults in England by the start of 2020.

But the big question is, will it be enough? Elliot Gowans, senior vice-president of international at cloud-based learning management software provider D2L, believes that while the initiative is a “good first step”, it will prove “insufficient” in the long term.

“The current measures underestimate the scope of the challenge, and the budget announced by the UK government reflects that,” he says.

“Eligibility for the NRS is currently restricted to those who do not have a qualification at degree level, which assumes that automation and AI will only affect those in jobs which don’t require degrees, [even though the] reskilling issue will be broad and impact a variety of sectors, job functions and levels.”

As a result, Gowans would like to see the scheme expanded more broadly and to “have much more budget placed behind it”.

Big retraining bill

Vivek Daga, vice-president and country head for the UK and Ireland at IT services provider Cognizant, agrees with Gowans.

He points out that there are currently about 32 million people employed in the UK, which means that to reskill even 5% would be the equivalent of around 1.6 million people. This means that if £1,000 were spent on each individual, the bill would come to £1.6bn even before any other expenditure was taken into account.

“It’s an important start, but one size won’t fit all as it’s a multi-dimensional challenge and it’s going to be a pretty big bill,” he says. “So investment isn’t going to be sustainable unless the government works in a meaningful three-way partnership with employers and training providers.”

There is scope for “more consultation with business as encouraging collaboration and co-creation is going to be important”, he adds.

Daga also believes there is a need for a range of advisory committees to focus on the particular reskilling needs of individual vertical sectors – something he is certain that employers will be prepared to “dedicate time to as it’s in their interests to help shape this”.

Dominic Harvey, director of IT jobs board provider CWJobs, concurs. He believes it is businesses that are better placed to pinpoint skills gaps more swiftly than either government or the general population, as their own requirements mean they have to be “reactive to where the pain points are”.

“So investment isn’t going to be sustainable unless the government works in a meaningful three-way partnership with employers and training providers”
Vivek Daga, Cognizant

Such attention also needs to be lavished on the selection and monitoring of training providers to ensure they are not “fly-by-night” and deliver high-quality services that are easy to consume.

But in the opinion of D2L’s Gowans, it is not just up to government alone to solve the problem. He believes “a lot of the burden of the reskilling challenge” will have to fall to employers because for their workforces to develop the “durable skills they need to provide long-term business value, ultimately it is their responsibility”.

According to a recent report by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), Addressing employer underinvestment in training, there has been a worrying 20% drop in the levels of work-related off-the-job training given by UK employers between 1998 and 2018.

Even worse, much of the training was inappropriate to meeting the challenges organisations are likely to face. For example, between 50% and 100% of such provision offered by a third of survey respondents was either health and safety or induction-based.

Unsurprisingly, an earlier CIPD study also revealed that UK employers spend significantly less on training than the European Union average, forking out €266 per employee compared with €511 elsewhere.

A culture of continuous learning

Despite such apparent indifference to the coming crisis, adopting a culture of continuous learning is going to become increasingly vital to cope with ongoing falls in the half-life of skills.

To help do so, Ian Storey, senior vice-president of professional staffing at recruitment consultancy Modis and Spring Technology, recommends a number of approaches.

The first consists of setting up an in-house training fund to focus on developing the “key soft skills required for tomorrow” using techniques, such as on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching.

The second involves making hiring decisions based less on qualifications and experience and more on aptitude, which includes an individual’s ability to learn. It also entails cross-training these new hires into specific roles if necessary.

The third suggestion is about using technology, such as mobile and augmented or virtual reality, to provide a more bite-sized, immersive and experiential learning pathway.

The fourth would involve employers agreeing to reskill their workers for the length of their employment as long as they committed contractually to work for them for a pre-determined period of time.

A final proposal, meanwhile, would see the introduction of so-called Employability Accounts at the national level to encourage employers to contribute to personal training accounts set up for each worker in the country. The aim would be to ensure skills were transferable and their development, particularly in the case of harder-to-evaluate soft skills, was transparent.

But, as Storey acknowledges, “there are no silver bullets”, and a range of initiatives will be required across the private and public sector, both individually and in tandem, to get on top of the challenge successfully.

Interestingly though, CWJobs’s Harvey believes that Brexit could help here as it is likely to stall the economy “at precisely the wrong time for the adoption of automation and AI, which could offer the country more time to reskill”. With uptake currently still only in pockets, he expects it will be another three to five years before it hits the mainstream.

“By the middle of the next decade, adoption will really accelerate, but the danger is that companies may not want to spend a lot on retraining until it happens – even though they really need to be preparing now. So, unfortunately, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” Harvey adds.

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