How can we anticipate the UK’s future skills need?

Workers of the future will need to navigate the increasingly choppy waters of a labour market disrupted by automation, Brexit and the transition to a net-zero future

December 07, 2022
© Illustration by Ian Morris
© Illustration by Ian Morris

Global trends such as automation and climate change will re-shape whole sectors—and the UK’s shift towards a knowledge economy is likely to continue. How can we reap the benefits of these changes while ensuring workers are able to acclimatise to an uncertain economic future? 

The transformations wrought by digital technologies mirror those of the industrial revolution. These eventually resulted in improvements in the material standard of living for many people but only after years of dislocation and disruption, with hard fought battles for workers’ rights. 

Climate change, too, will require wholesale reconfiguration of many industries, such as transport and heating, which will reshape associated jobs. Brexit is already causing labour shortages in some sectors, meaning the UK will either need to direct sustained investment into nurturing domestic talent or start attracting workers to immigrate from elsewhere.

The scale of this change has sparked calls for a fundamental rethink of our systems of education, training and career development. It has become something of a cliché to observe that schooling has yet to fully evolve from the model used to train factory workers and clerks for the industrial age. Meanwhile, the provision for learning in later life—which will be critical in helping people transition between roles—has rarely featured as a top-tier political priority in the same way as education for young people. 

Workplaces increasingly governed by AI will open up new fronts in the struggle for employee rights. Decisions relating to hiring, line-management and dismissal are now being made by AI in ways which could not have been anticipated by those drafting labour laws. Already, a survey of workers for the Trades Union Congress has found that 22 per cent experienced the use of these technologies for absence management, 15 per cent for performance ratings and 14 per cent for work allocation. 

According to Frances O’Grady, nothing short of a new Charter of Rights will be sufficient to protect employees who find themselves working for an algorithm. The question of supporting career reinventions and retraining is addressed in Sonia Sodha’s radical proposal for a drawdown fund that workers can tap into at any point over their lifetime. Modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility, Margaret Heffernan pitches a new independent future skills body charged with ensuring the UK is sufficiently agile in the face of a deeply unpredictable labour market.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.