Countries around the world are faced with considerable skills, productivity and social inclusion challenges that require novel and innovative approaches to skills development. In a global marketplace there has been a number of innovative solutions emerging that provide telling glimpses into the future of education, and a recent report from the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and WorldSkills UK uncovers a handful of the most innovative ones from Switzerland, Shanghai, Russia and Singapore.
“Skills improvements complement other key building blocks of an innovative and inclusive economy,” the authors explain. “The effectiveness of investment in infrastructure, new technologies, research and innovation, regional growth and improved business practices and processes is influenced by how well skills are cultivated (their supply) and applied (their utilisation).”
The Swiss regularly top league tables such as the Global Innovation Index, and the human capital available to the country is a key factor behind that success. They have a robust technical and vocational education system that revolves around apprenticeships, professional education and connectivity between vocational and general education.
They also place a high degree of emphasis on careers guidance, with individuals at risk of exclusion from either learning or work given a caseworker to help them bounce back effectively. This is aligned with a number of high-quality institutions that allow scope for innovation, with the Universities of Applied Sciences helping to connect vocational and academic streams of learning.
By contrast, Shanghai provides some invaluable lessons in terms of their ability to reinvent their economic purpose after a period of deindustrialization.
“Skills provision was reformed to be much more market-oriented and aligned with the city’s economic development strategy,” the authors explain. “The approach addressed both higher level skills and also upskilling the segments of the workforce with low level or outdated skills.”
Central to their approach to reskilling was an intensive amount of local experimentation, with a high degree of local autonomy granted to the region to do so. A process of testing, piloting and scaling was instigated to ensure citizens had the skills needed as the local economy refocused on services and high technology industries.
Asian Tiger economy Singapore has seen well-documented economic growth in the past few decades, and education has been a central driver of this growth. Whilst the economy has well known successes in services, the report highlights the technical and vocational education provided as an unsung factor behind the lifelong learning culture found in the country.
“Lifelong learning is now viewed as an important component of the Singapore’s overall education system, as it enables workers to continue their professional development throughout their working lives, and to update their skills in line with the demand in the country’s economy,” the authors explain. “Specific programmes exist to support mid-career workers to convert to a new profession in Singapore’s growth sectors, either through in-work training or training and then job placement.”
Central to this philosophy has been their SkillsFuture program, which offers a one-stop education and career guidance portal to help every Singaporean plan their lifelong learning journey. The program is supported by placements and learning credits for those starting out on their professional life, and a range of courses and development opportunities for those already into their careers.
Retraining is encouraged via skills competitions that contain personal training accounts that have underpinned considerable growth in adult participation in learning.
Another country that has undergone a fundamental restructuring of their economy is Russia, and the report highlights how benchmarking has been used to ensure they learn from the best practices of other countries around the world.
Their first entry into the WorldSkills competitions saw them finish near to the bottom, but since then they have improved considerably, and now regularly finishes in the top positions. Indeed, the competitive nature of these events has been a major factor in their improvement, with public, private and academic sectors working together to move skills development in the right direction.
The authors pull together a number of factors from these case studies that they believe are crucial in equipping countries with the means to support citizens as they adapt to changes in the labor market. These include ensure there is a parity of esteem between vocational and academic education; that policies are led by stakeholders and rooted in local governance; that an experimental approach supports learning across the ecosystem; and they are enacted behind a clear vision to unite all stakeholders.
Perhaps the most important of these is the importance of local governance, as change unfolds in distinct ways in each location, especially in areas where a single employer or industry dominates.
“Place, including how it is shaped by local and regional formal and informal networks, is at the centre of a social ecosystem,” the authors explain. “It constitutes a “complex dynamic of economic, social, political, cultural and institutional factors” that play out in a locality. This ranges from the structure of the local labour market, local traditions and the economic and social geography, all the way through to the capacity and leadership of local government, the actions of employers and the institutional and cultural configurations of education and training providers.”
A one-size-fits-all national approach simply doesn’t cut it in a world in which social, demographic and institutional contexts vary so significantly from place to place. The authors rightly advocate ‘devolution by default,’ with local regions empowered to respond to their particular circumstances in the way they see fit, with each region encouraged to share the outcomes of their experiments so that learning can flourish throughout the nation.
All of this will, inevitably, require investment, but perhaps more importantly it requires a shift in mindset to not only place vocational training on a par with academic education, but to also underpin a culture of lifelong learning that will be so important in the future of work. As the paper ably shows, there are regions of the world where these developments are taking place. Time will tell whether other regions learn from these vanguards and give citizens the support they so dearly need.