The future of work – what do we know?

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The fortune-tellers are back in town. Predicting the future of work has become popular in the policy world, producing results from the plausible to the purely sci-fi. Innovative and exciting these predictions may be, but universities shouldn’t get swept up in the hype. Focusing on the core skills these jobs will require is a far more important – and achievable – strategy to future-proof the next generation of graduates in an ever-changing jobs market.

Policy is rarely a fashionable field, but something of a trend has taken off – predicting the future of the jobs market. It’s not a completely new game. The Government has been collecting data for years on what changes sectors may see in the future through the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) data set. But more and more voices are now getting in on the act and increasingly creative approaches are emerging.

It’s easy to see why there is such an interest. If done with accuracy, predicting what the future workforce will look like would be commercial gold-dust to the private and public sectors – and to higher education institutions.

If universities know what the jobs market will look like, they can turn out graduates with the skills to match, increasing their chances of having high graduate employment rates. If they could do this better than other universities, their graduates will be in higher demand, driving up graduates’ employment prospects and salaries (both now highlighted through the publication of LEO data) and in turn increasing the university’s reputation for equipping its students well for the future.

An early caveat is needed here. There are strong cases to be made for the broader value that a degree can offer – not just to individual students but to societies as a whole. However, in a policy context where graduate outcomes data is becoming a bigger focus and the value of a degree is constantly being debated, progression to employment will surely be one of the many plates HE institutions have to keep spinning.

The multiple futures of work

If you read any one report, you’d be forgiven for thinking that quite a lot is known about the future of work. Yet pick up more than one source of information and the waters muddy – particularly when different methodological approaches have been taken.

Surveys of employers are a regular feature of research into the future of work, such as the long-running CBI education and skills survey or the UKCES dataset, and these tend to indicate quite similar trends: an increased demand for high- and medium-skilled occupations; prediction that automation will change some jobs, yet eradicate few. However more innovative approaches are now emerging: for example, NESTA and Pearson recently collaborated on a report which coupled the views of industry experts with a machine learning algorithm, designed to give a better model of what the future looks like than just opinion alone. Having a portfolio of approaches is probably a good thing in the long run – at least it provides some methodological checks and balances. But for the moment, there are perplexing inconsistencies in the predictions that have been published.

For example, the NESTA/Pearson collaboration predicts that education, health care, and wider public-sector occupations are among the most likely to grow in number of roles available. This is in direct opposition to the UKCES Future of Work report which predicts that employment in public sector services will decrease and that there will be a declining market-share of public administration, health and education jobs between 2014 and 2024. It is worth noting that there are two slightly different concepts being talked about here. The NESTA/Pearson report focuses on the absolute number of jobs likely to be created in certain professions, while UKCES reports on the relative proportion of these as a share of the overall jobs market. However, with the working age population set to decline over the coming years a decrease in market share should align with a decrease in absolute numbers as well.  

Disagreement in the research isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does complicate things for universities looking to equip their graduates for the future of work. Which future should be believed? Should universities increase or decrease places on their teacher training courses? The UKCES report predicts a declining market share of education professionals. Yet PwC concludes it is one of the professions least at risk of automation and therefore likely to remain in high demand. What about increasing places on arts and creative courses? The NESTA/Pearson report predicts that artists are the profession most likely to experience increased demand in future. If that is to be believed, artistic and creative media professionals should be snapped up by the future jobs market. Yet the Future of Jobs project by the World Economic Forum suggests that demand for artistic and creative professionals is likely to decrease in the UK.  

Until there is greater consistency it would be a risky move to match degree provision to future job predictions. This is one of PwC’s key messages from its research: “Make ‘no regrets’ moves that work with most scenarios”. In other words, when it comes to predicting the future of the workforce, it could be smart to sit on the fence.

Nothing to see here?

That’s not to say there is nothing to conclude from these studies. Acknowledging the uncertainty of prediction modelling, almost all reports addressing the future of work also touch on the skills that will be needed to do these jobs. Here there is far more consistency.

Over the last ten years, “employability skills” has topped the CBI’s ranking of attributes employers look for when recruiting graduates. Although there is no unanimous definition of these skills across policy, education and business sectors, broadly it includes attributes such as team-work, problem-solving, analysis, and the ability to apply knowledge to new scenarios. That these skills have remained consistently in demand from employers in a decade of change is striking.

These employability skills are also remarkably similar to the skills which NESTA and Pearson predict to be most valued in the future. NESTA/Pearson predict that the top 8 skills required for the professions forecast to grow most substantially are: judgment and decision-making; fluency of ideas; active learning; learning strategies; originality; systems evaluation and analysis; deductive reasoning; complex problem solving. While some of the language is different, a lot of the concepts are the same. Tracing these skills back even further, they are based on a fundamental set of psychological processes: executive functions. Psychologists have recognised these key cognitive processes are linked to long term employment outcomes since the 1960s.

So what?

While there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past, it is striking how these skills have stood the test of time so far despite vast technological advances and the changing make-up of the economy. When there are skills that have been consistently valued in the past across multiple sources and studies, and are predicted to be most valued in the future across a wide range of professions, there is a strong case for developing these in young graduates so that they emerge from university well-placed to secure employment.

This can’t answer all of HE’s questions, and it would still be useful to know whether economists are due to become extinct. However, until there is greater consistency in predicting jobs of the future, it would be prudent to take any sci-fi predictions with a pinch of salt. Giving graduates the core skills which are likely still to be in high demand is the best approach for universities wanting to ensure their students remain employable in a changing world of work.

This article is part of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series. There’s more information about the series here.

1 thoughts on “The future of work – what do we know?”

  1. johnnysrich says:

    Excellent piece, Charlotte. Thank you.
    The more work I do on the nature of employability, the more I realise that its components – skills (hard and soft), knowledge and character attributes (like attitudes, behaviours and personality) – are merely ways of describing a rounded person (or a rounded person who might also be specifically suited to a particular task).
    I find myself returning to the conclusions reached in the 90s and before when, rather than the terminology being about developing graduate ’employability’, it focused on what ‘graduateness’ is and how better to engender it.
    Over time, in the past, this rounded person has remained in high demand economically, socially and culturally. We have every reason to suppose they will continue to do so in the future. Universities that try to support the development of roundedness rather than focussing on a particular wish list of skills will serve their graduates and themselves better.
    That said, the employability room has a rather large and unpleasant elephant: in my list of the components of employability, I deliberately missed out ‘social capital’. Society’s estimation of an individual’s intrinsic worth (whether because of their background, gender, race, age, height, accent or ability to use the appropriate fork) is worth around £3k in relative graduate salaries.
    Usually such estimations have little to do with an individual’s ability to do a job and so the larger a part social capital plays in the graduate labour market, the more the valid components of employability are squeezed out of the mix.
    To reverse that and ensure it is social capital that gets squeezed, universities, employers, academics and students themselves must start being more explicit about skills, knowledge and character as objectives of higher education. We all need to articulate better what we hope to develop from HE, consider how we can embed that development better into curricular and extra-curricular activities, and support reflection on the development that has been achieved.

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