Everyone is worried about skills

The ShardI have traversed three continents these last few weeks, from Europe to the west coast of America, then back and across to the Middle East.

The trips all centred around assessment and skills events – culminating in apprentices week in the UK. “Everyone is worried about skills” said the BBC’s Steph McGovern at the CITB Building Futures conference. The challenges are different but the concerns are the same – whether you sit in the US or UK with their growing economies or the Middle East with their large numbers of young people, a shortage of the right skills to meet the needs of employers and their evolving industries will impact progress.

I believe technology doesn’t always help – young people make choices based on cultural changes and technological influences, and yet industries, jobs and the needs of employers are not the same. They must be aligned.

We do have a solution – young people learn from other young people, so let’s showcase our stars and use technology to promote them as case studies of success. In other words, a career in IT can mean working at Sky TV or motor racing, a career in construction might give somebody the opportunity to be in the team that builds the next Shard or Premier League football stadium. Let’s create success stories of young people who love their work and promote them as role models – then use technology to spread the word.

I close with real hope – I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and desire to succeed shown by the apprentices at the JustIT learner awards night where I shared my thoughts on the fusion of technology and education – I will continue to shout from the rooftops, that if you wake up with the attitude, desire and motivation to do a great job, invariably you will do well.

A morsel of MOOC

Big cheese

American inventor Charles Kettering said, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will spend the rest of our lives there.” With that, more of us are sitting up and taking note.

Technology continues to disrupt all industries and no more so than where it intersects with education. The idea of a single education followed by a single career is long in the past, so we have to take control of our portfolio of skills and continue to upgrade and refine it regardless of the work we do. We have to stay in touch, not just with gadgets and technology but what we know, as the sector we work in evolves at pace.

MOOCs such as FutureLearn are examples of technology helping us managing this requirement – short bursts of learning relevant to an immediate work need – or even an interest. Learning about photography, about wine, film or an historical event, can be the most pleasurable of all, plus it makes for a well-rounded individual.

With careers no longer linear and tenure within job roles around the 3-4 year range, we must learn to adapt, constantly learn, move sideways and even be prepared for downward steps, before we make upward moves on the long journey to the “big cheese” position.

Get ready for the ride, it will be different and is likely to be bumpy.

I have seen the future

I attended the Certiport Global Partner Summit and the MOS and ACA World Championships this week in California. Let me explain.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of young people enter competitions, at a national level, to see who are the most creative Adobe and most proficient Microsoft Office Specialist users. After months of competition and excitement, around 130 competitors gathered in a hotel at Disney in California this week for an intense conclusion to proceedings. As the results were announced, the young winners ran to the stage to earn their medals and prizes as family, friends and those watching from afar via live broadcast jumped into raptures. So what does this all mean?

For the winners, no doubt fame awaits them in their countries when they return home and probably a gateway to a nice job role in the near future. That is very well deserved. For the IT industry, even more. These world championships highlight everything that is good in our industry. The work the Adobe competitors delivered as part of the Kiva project, for example, could easily have been created by a professional agency. The fact that most of the kids were not native English speakers made it even more remarkable.

I saw the future. It lies with those excited kids having a fantastic time, representing the next generation of IT workers, innovators and companies. My summary of the week was that every IT vendor should have a competition, should invest in the next generation in this way, because it is some of the most powerful and compelling branding and engagement I have ever seen.

These kids operate differently! How many times have we heard that?

We know that mobiles and smart devices are transforming how we shop and communicate today, and how we will learn in the future. Generation Y has mastered the art of mobility and will not want to be tied to one office, nor one company, as they seek varied and interesting employment in future.

What remains is that our role as educators is to transform these learners to earners – to give them the skills to embark on career pathways to suit their needs, to give them a platform to upskill or change direction as they see fit – but importantly to furnish them with the skills for the world of work.

It is important we understand how they operate, for they are both our workforce and our customer of tomorrow. How do we offer this to them? How do we engage them to shape how learning meets their needs in future? With things evolving faster than ever before, how can we stop for long enough to make impact?

Workplace in the classroom

future learning

I was delighted to be asked to present at the 2014 National Apprenticeships conference at the Film Museum last week. I talked about technology and education coming together and the inextricable link between learning and working.

I shared a story from 100+ years ago and the World Fair in St Louis. The man that was selling ice cream ran out of paper cups, and the exhibitor next to him who was selling waffles decided to roll them flat and curl them into the shape of a handheld cone. Thus the ice cream cone was born. Two distinct ‘ingredients’, no connection between the two, coming together to create something completely new.

Now I applied that connection to work and education (thanks Noel Tagoe, Executive Director at CIMA, for the inspiration). Companies have to be part of the education process and give young people a chance to get a taste of what the world of work is all about. We should all be giving apprenticeships an opportunity to sample the workplace and make working a part of the overall learning experience. Similarly, employers have to be involved in influencing education, so that what is taught in the classroom has relevance in the workplace. Then, when students start on their career path, they can make a contribution from day one. Let’s stop teaching irrelevancies, no wonder kids switch off and turn to their phones every 6 minutes.

Classroom in the workplace, workplace in the classroom – that is the future.


I enjoyed being a part of the ‘Voice of Apprenticeships’ Conference this week, where I presented immediately before Skills Minister Matthew Hancock MP. I shared my views on how technology is changing not just how we must think about educating the next generation but how we engage and reach these students today.

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are getting a lot of press currently and the UK’s FutureLearn programme led by the Open University is leading the way. Smartphones and tablets are changing how we absorb information and education must follow suit, in smaller, bite-sized chunks, when and where the learner chooses to digest it.

Education may well take the form of a pick-and-mix bag of choices, but hopefully not as expensive as the pick-and-mix outlets selling confectionery. It may be that the role of the education institution includes tracking and approving building blocks of learning that add up to a unique qualification and that very few degrees actually look the same, but are pieced together based on an individual’s requirements and more importantly, the needs of a job role and the workplace.

What are the choices? History and prestige means the top tier universities will always have a demand for places, because of the prestige of having the institution listed on one’s CV or profile on LinkedIn. But for the rest, there is no choice. The majority of learning establishments have to change their value proposition; a student in a small town in England, or even as far as Africa or Asia, won’t pay to attend a mediocre lecture, when they can learn online from world experts.

The Professions Paradox

Technology is one of the great levellers. With a smart and creative online presence, a small business can often give the impression of a large organisation, and yet technology alone doesn’t hold the key moving forward.

A look at unemployment rates across Europe shows that the employment bubble of the past 30 years has burst and the need for lower-skilled roles is drying up. There are currently 25m unemployed people in Europe plus 15m discouraged workers, which together would make the unemployment rate over 15% in total. Plus, over 20% of the true unemployed in Europe are under 24.

Yet a common thread amongst employers looking to fill skilled positions is that they can’t find the staff, and this trend is global! Almost half of employers in Europe report a shortage of skills (Accenture: ‘Turning the Tide’ survey).

By 2020, it will only get worse. An extra 16m high skilled jobs will be needed, countered by a decline of 12m less low-skilled positions.

That was the landscape. We must solve it by training and certifying our employees; we must use ‘big data’ to predict, anticipate and better target our customers, and we must apply technology to engage and connect everyone to our brand. Once again, the solution revolves around companies investing in their people, and individuals investing in themselves, in lifelong learning, in whatever shape that may take.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Richard Reed, one of the founders of Innocent, the smoothie drinks maker, “You can imitate our services and technology, but not the quality of our people.” I am guessing not many people choose to leave that company in a hurry.

The MOOC thing

Technology continues to disrupt and next in line is education. There has been a lot written about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and many renowned institutions are involved – Harvard, MIT, Stanford and more recently the Open University here in the UK with their FutureLearn model. The Khan Academy, launched by Salman Khan, delivers 200m classes via YouTube, with zero hosting costs, now that is clever.

MOOCs are still trying to establish their model and this may take some time, but what is really important is that traditional learning institutions cannot just sit back and disregard this wave of change. I accept that tier-one universities such as Harvard or Cambridge will always have demand for places due to the prestige associated with studying there. But a student in Europe or Asia will refuse to pay large sums of money to sit in a mediocre lecture in their own country when they can learn online from world class tutors and be associated with a leading university.

Currently the MOOC interest is more about bridging the gap between current knowledge and acquiring new skills in order to do a better job, or find a new one. These modular, bite-sized chunks of learning are possibly the icing on the cake. If 5 candidates interview for one role and have a similar degree and one has an additional 20 certificates of mastery in a specific area of study, it is likely that their CV will stand out. In today’s world, it is all about differentiation. The modules offered by MOOCs not only allow an individual to keep up with changes in the business world but possibly in future even anticipate how market sectors will evolve.

This is just one example. Technology is breaking up the majority, the mainstream and the mundane. Which sector is next?

Hardware, Software or Brainware

I am just back from the European ATP conference, where more than 200 certification and assessment experts gathered to discuss learning and testing and its future. As always the common thread throughout all presentations and panel sessions was technology. From ‘Bring Your Own Device’ to student engagement via social media, technology excited the delegates but also made some nervous about change.

Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, Martin Bean, a personal friend and mentor for some 20 years, delivered a sensational presentation showing how his institution was moving with the times. From the Frozen Planet to iTunesU, the OU continues to lead the way both here and abroad. Our Group CEO Rona Fairhead (of the Financial Times Group, the division of Pearson I work for) shared the most thought-provoking of stories talking about the professions paradox. So many people, so few skills and demand continues to grow. We will stumble and fall if we don’t address the skills shortfall that faces all Europe.

I had just 20 minutes in my session to highlight how some of the tech-trends are weaving into education, especially through mobility and handheld devices, and as always, I finished on no small matter of ‘Tomorrow’s Talent.’ One of the key messages that connected many presentations was that we must nurture our next generation of talent and understand them on their terms. If we don’t, they will opt not to work for us, because as we encounter a thinning supply of skilled people and we operate in what I call a stock market of human resources, it will be the holders of those intellectual assets (not hardware or software but ‘brainware’) who will wield the most power. They will choose their employer or go it alone, and we will be left with the greatest technology and no people to make effective use of it.

Remember, Remember

I am just back from co-hosting the Pearson VUE Global Sales Summit, where the business development and client support teams from round the globe descended on Minneapolis to discuss learning and assessment technologies, share case studies and talk futures. It was an excellent event.

At breakfast in the hotel the waiter asked me if I would like some cranberry juice, my morning potion. How did he remember after so many months? That is some service. This led me to think where I would like to see technology heading in the learning space, using IT to remember our learning preferences.

I have been involved in many discussions around lifelong learning and how it will be the responsibility of the individual to keep their skills up to date, as companies reduced their core and people move around from project to project putting their skills and expertise to use. What we need is an App on our devices that tracks our learning, recognises completion of a module specific to our immediate task at hand and then recommends when we are ready for the next stage, each time suggesting local providers, special offers and development opportunities.

If the technology at our disposal can recommend discounted meals, city breaks and electronic goods, why can it not also recommend bite-sized chunks of learning and tailored education – the most important investment of all?