Collaboration and awareness are critical to addressing the skills gap

According to research from the Open University, 73% of UK organisations are currently experiencing skills shortages.

This situation, similar to that in other industrialised nations, poses a crisis for the UK’s workforce that threatens to further impede growth and productivity in the coming decades. If we are to overcome this challenge, we must ensure that our education system is geared toward supporting learners of all ages and providing more flexible, market-suitable learning opportunities.

With the exponential growth of emerging technologies and their ability to both create and alter job roles, there is a real need to ensure that we address the qualifications and skills needed by employers; otherwise, we risk training and courses becoming outdated before they are even completed. In addition to increased digital innovation, we are seeing an ageing workforce that is likely to work longer than any previous generation. Without the right skills being offered to the entire workforce, economies won’t be able to respond and adapt or take advantage of new technologies that could increase productivity.

So, what should we be doing to help us overcome these challenges and put the UK on the right path to a highly-skilled workforce? Delivering on this requires governmental reform, enhanced training offerings and greater partnership between the state, education providers and the private sector.

Current initiatives including the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), as well as Labour’s intentions to introduce Skills England, showcase a clear commitment to change from political parties. This ambition is reflected in the growing demand and supply for shorter, more flexible courses, also known as micro-credentials. These courses offer greater opportunities for students and workers of all ages to pivot and train flexibly while ensuring that learning remains current and aligns with the changing needs of employers and society.

While this is gaining traction, with many UK universities and organisations already offering these types of courses, a recent report, Setting the Stage for Lifelong Learning, revealed that despite bite-sized learning opportunities – including short courses and micro-credentials – being seen as more accessible for equipping skills, there remains an awareness gap between students and educators. This calls for universities to intensify their communication and outreach strategies to ensure that the benefits of these learning opportunities are effectively conveyed to both current and prospective students.

As we gradually move away from the cultural belief that a traditional degree is the only pathway to better job opportunities, awareness and appetite for these new learning options will depend on collaborative and coordinated work between the government, education institutions, training providers, and businesses to establish best practices for market-relevant bite-sized learning course provisions. This will help to address the job market skill gaps and can also provide more career and job opportunities for individuals.

Additionally, when looking at the current LLE, there is a need for more flexible offerings and funding for shorter, more market-relevant courses. These courses also need to be designed to cater for first-time university students, distance learners and those over 60 to better support social and intergenerational mobility. Only offering funding for modules that are part of a parent programme creates barriers to building and sustaining independent courses in emerging fields of study. Further, more pioneering and flexible forms of learning may be limited by a stereotypical focus on full-time degrees and minimum credits, which, while remaining integral within the education system, can quickly become outdated.

Another report published in 2023, The State of Student Success & Engagement in Higher Education, showed that skill-based learning opportunities are highly attractive to students. Instructure’s survey of students and educators found that career advancement and the desire to learn new skills are most likely to influence students to pursue a skills-based learning opportunity, whilst educators strongly value the practical application of knowledge and skills and integration of technology. The report also highlights that for those in the UK, the most valuable aspects of skills-based learning are the practical application of knowledge and skills, feedback on progress and performance, and programme flexibility.

Workers are no longer expected to adapt and learn new skills linearly but independently as their roles in the workforce evolve, which demands more flexible and diversifying learning options. Technology-enhanced learning powered by virtual learning environments (VLEs) allows universities and further education institutions to offer bite-sized learning experiences with short courses and micro-credentials. Instructure research has found that adult learners believe that flexible technology platforms and tools have a positive impact on their learning. In an increasingly digital learning landscape, the use of such technology provides learners more control of their education alongside the ability to upskill and even pivot careers depending on their abilities, interests and the ever-evolving job market.

The UK and other industrialised countries have long faced a shortage of skills, undermining investment, productivity and confidence in the economy. As the reports clearly show, there is an appetite and need for government, education providers and the private sector to collaborate more deeply to provide the best opportunities for all, whether this be a current student or someone who has been working for 30 years.

More than ever, technology-enhanced learning plays a key part in the evolution of the workforce by enabling businesses and education institutions to create and offer courses and flexible learning experiences that can help individuals at different points of their learning journey upskill or reskill and provide stability for themselves and their families and improve the country’s competitive edge in the global market.

This article was written and contributed by Daniel Hill, Managing Director of Europe, Middle East and Africa, Instructure.