The world of work has been changing for some time, with an end to the idea of jobs for life and the onset of the gig economy. But just as in every other field where digital transformation is ongoing, the events of 2020 have accelerated the pace of this change dramatically.
The International Labor Organization has estimated that almost 300 million jobs are at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic. Of those that are lost, almost 40% will not come back. According to research by the University of Chicago, they will be replaced by automation to get work done more safely and efficiently. Particularly at risk are so-called “frontline” jobs – customer service, cashiers, retail assistant, and public transport being just a few examples. But no occupation or profession is entirely future proof. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), even tasks previously reserved for highly trained doctors and lawyers – diagnosing illness from medical images, or reviewing legal case history, for example – can now be carried out by machines.
At the same time, the World Economic Forum, in its 2020 Future of Jobs report, finds that 94% of companies in the UK will accelerate the digitization of their operations as a result of the pandemic, and 91% are saying they will provide more flexibility around home or remote working.
If you’re in education or training now, this creates a dilemma. Forget the old-fashioned concept of a “job for life,” which we all know is dead – but will the skills you’re learning now even still be relevant by the time you graduate?
One thing that’s sure is that we’re moving into an era where education is life-long. With today’s speed of change, there are fewer and fewer careers where you can expect the knowledge you pick up in school or university to see you through to retirement.
All of this has created a perfect environment for online learning to boom. Rather than moving to a new city and dedicating several years to studying for a degree, it’s becoming increasingly common to simply log in from home and fit education around existing work and family responsibilities.
This fits with the vision of Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of online learning platform Coursera. Coursera was launched in 2012 by a group of Stanford professors interested in using the internet to widen access to world-class educational content. Today, 76 million learners have taken 4,500 different courses from 150 universities, and the company is at the forefront of the wave of transformation spreading through education.
“The point I focus on,” he told me during our recent conversation, “is that the people who have the jobs that are going to be automated do not currently have the skills to get the new jobs that are going to be created.”
Without intervention, this could lead to an “everyone loses” scenario, where high levels of unemployment coincide with large numbers of vacancies going unfilled because businesses can’t find people with the necessary skills.
The answer here is a rethink of education from the ground up, Maggioncalda says, and it’s an opinion that is widely shared. Another WEF statistic tells us 66% of employers say they are accelerating programs for upskilling employees to work with new technology and data.
Models of education will change, too, as the needs of industry change. Coursera is preparing for this by creating new classes of qualification such as its Entry-Level Professional Certificates. Often provided directly by big employers, including Google and Facebook, these impart a grounding in the fundamentals needed to take on an entry-level position in a technical career, with the expectation that the student would go on to continue their education to degree level while working, through online courses, or accelerated on-campus semesters.
“The future of education is going to be much more flexible, modular, and online. Because people will not quit their job to go back to campus for two or three years to get a degree, they can’t afford to be out of the workplace that long and move their families. There’s going to be much more flexible, bite-sized modular certificate programs that add up to degrees, and it’s something people will experience over the course of their working careers,” says Maggioncalda.
All of this ties nicely with the growing requirements that industry has for workers that are able to continuously reskill and upskill to keep pace with technological change. It could lead to an end of the traditional model where our status as students expires as we pass into adulthood and employment.
Rather than simply graduating and waving goodbye to their colleges as they throw their mortarboards skywards, students could end up with life-long relationships with their preferred providers of education, paying a subscription to remain enrolled and able to continue their learning indefinitely.
“Because why wouldn’t the university want to be your lifelong learning partner?” Maggioncalda says.
“As the world changes, you have a community that you’re familiar with, and you can continue to go back and learn – and your degree is kind of never really done – you’re getting micro-credentials and rounding out your portfolio. This creates a great opportunity for higher education.”
Personally, I feel that this all points to an exciting future where barriers to education are broken down, and people are no longer blocked from studying by the fact they also need to hold down a job, or simply because they can’t afford to move away to start a university course.
With remote working increasingly common, factors such as where we happen to grow up, or where we want to settle and raise families, will no longer limit our aspirations for careers and education. This could lead to a “democratization of education,” with lower costs to the learner as employers willingly pick up the tab for those who show they can continually improve their skillsets.
As the world changes, education changes too. Austere school rooms and ivory-tower academia are relics of the last century. While formal qualifications and degrees aren’t likely to vanish any time soon, the way they are delivered in ten years’ time is likely to be vastly different than today, and ideas such as modular, lifelong learning, and entry-level certificates are a good indication of the direction things are heading.
You can watch my conversation with Jeff Maggioncalda in full, where among other topics, we also cover the impact of Covid-19 on building corporate cultures and the implications of the increasingly globalized, remote workforce.
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