The imperative for lifelong learning
Covid-19 has given us a crash course in the importance of lifelong learning, providing a taster of what is in store as technology accelerates the pace of change.
“Following the major disruption to many workplaces, jobs and business, the pandemic has hastened fundamental change in the workplace via an expanded digital economy, and in the demand for and provision of greater flexibility in working arrangements,” says Claire McGee Ibec head of Education and Innovation Policy.
Navigating the disruption has required us all to develop new skills, agility and resilience. The challenge, once Covid-19 abates, is to keep doing it.
Lifelong learning will be critical to that but Ireland, which already has a lower rate of lifelong learning participation than some of its peers, must now continue to boost investment in upskilling despite the uncertainties facing learning and training budgets.
Ibec research indicates that over 35 per cent of businesses are seeking, as a priority, targeted supports for employee upskilling and retraining, to help them return their business to pre-crisis level of activity.
In addition, its research suggests that greater use of remote working (73 per cent) and increased investment in technology (42 per cent) point to a more virtual way of conducting at least some aspects of business.
“To support a smooth transition to this new dynamic of work will require new skills for everyone, at every level in every organisation. Embedding this learning mindset will require more than individual will, it also requires targeted investments and incentives to ensure the workforce remains agile as jobs and business needs continually evolve,” warns McGee.
To get a sense of the changes ahead, just remember it was only in 2007 that Apple launched the iPhone.
“The pace of disruption is such that in the last 15 years alone we have seen the advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, new battery life technologies and smart communications devices which have completely transformed how we work, live and play,” says McGee.
“What is the next 15 years going to look like? How will it all be completely disrupted again? The answer is that no one knows.”
What we do know, and Covid-19 has affirmed, is that the only way for disruption to be a positive force is by staying one step ahead of it, she says, “and the way to do that is to invest in your skills.”
If we are to compete, as individuals or as a nation, lifelong learning must become a way of life. That means the barriers to it, in terms of time and cost, must be broken down.
“Most people can’t take the time to do a two year’s master’s programme, so the question is, how can we make sure learning is better aligned with their lives, and get employers to see training as a positive,” she says.
Yet even finding the right course of study is hard.
“It is an expensive decision in terms of time and resources, which makes picking the right training course difficult. Unfortunately, in Ireland careers guidance is primarily for school leavers, when in fact people in their 30s, 40s and 50s need it too,” she says.
School itself must come under the microscope.
“While interesting and lovely things are done at primary level in terms of exploration and development, the question now is whether secondary level really prepares people for lifelong learning. Does the process of going through such a high-stakes exam system create such a negative experience with learning that it leaves some people who move on never wanting to study again?” she asks.
Greater diversity of educational achievements is important, including more engagement with apprenticeships or further education, and industry-led learning networks such as Skillnet Ireland programmes.
“A system producing the same kind of people with the same skills won’t help us keep pace with change,” she cautions.
Lifelong learning helps develop a growth mindset that doesn’t fear change but, rather, sees the opportunities it brings.
“Nobody can tell you what the jobs of the future will be over the next five to 10 years, but we need to be up for the change. Otherwise, we will lose competitiveness.”
SMEs in particular need help. “Already with Covid-19 we have seen so many businesses that have had to close in lockdowns, and how they had to innovate to keep their brand alive, embracing digital marketing in a completely new way,” she points out.
“Covid-19 has shone a light on how necessary innovation is. Everyone has been in learning mode, together, for the first time. Let’s not lose that. Instead, lets capture it and make it mainstream.”
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