Ian McIlwan, Director of Development and Partnerships at FutureLearn.com

The notion of a ‘job for life’ was already in the process of being eroded by evolving pre-pandemic workplace trends. Younger generations have been at the forefront of this as they’ve had to continuously adapt to an increasingly fast-paced and technologically-driven world of work. Recent research published in our report on The Future of Learning revealed that over one in five (22%) of this age bracket don’t expect to work in the same industry by 2030.

Large scale technological disruption has created thousands of new roles – and therefore countless more opportunities to move around – in high-growth areas like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), health and care, business and legal, and more. Global consultancy firm McKinsey now predicts that the mix of occupations available by 2030 may have shifted significantly to be more weighted towards these growth sectors.

Of course the pandemic has heavily impacted the shape of the jobs landscape and drastically sped up the need for not just Millennials and Gen Zs to prepare themselves for new job roles, but for millions of professionals of all generations across all stages of their career path to upskill or reskill. So much so that 21% of working-age adults in the UK say they would consider spending personal time or money to learn new skills for a job or career move in the next year, according to our report.

It’s safe to say that today’s workforce expects retraining, upskilling and lifelong learning to remain necessities long after the pandemic, especially as people look to remain competitive in a dynamic and constantly changing jobs market through the new lifelong learning trend.

Higher education’s role in building the future workforce

This is a crucial moment for the sector as a whole to step up and help lower the barriers to high quality, career-focussed learning opportunities. It’s also more important than ever that universities are able to offer flexible and accessible solutions that individuals need right now and will continue to rely on as their careers evolve. Especially important as people increasingly need to learn while they’re working.

But at FutureLearn we’ve found that the key to getting this right doesn’t just sit with universities alone. Meaningful progress comes with cross-sector collaboration across higher ed, industry and edtech. Over the past few years we’ve seen many of our leading university partners coming together with some of the biggest names in high-demand sectors - from Amazon to Cisco, Xero and Salesforce - to create new lower-cost, career-building learning products such as accredited Microcredentials, or more recently, ExpertTracks, which we launched in early 2021 as an affordable, always-on means of boosting employability.

We also know that this type of affordable and expert-built learning resource, designed to fit around the demands and changes of day-to-day jobs, holds high value amongst professional learners. For example, our Future of Learning report found that two fifths of UK workers agree that they are likely to take an online course within the next five years in order to grow their skill set and get ahead in their career.

The next step for universities must now be towards strengthening relations with industry and edtech, so that they can continue to build into their core offerings resources and products that enable people to gain new skills no matter what point in their career or educational journey they’re at.

Creating pathways into career success with soft skills

It’s not just about identifying the right products and delivery methods to match demand, but about providing access to the right skills that both employers and workers are looking for. Research over the past two decades has found that hard skills such as coding or engineering are growing in demand. However, soft skills are now also proving just as critical as people must learn how to navigate multiple roles and work environments over their lifetime.

For example, data from SEEK, the Australian jobs board, has shown the most in-demand soft and transferable skills include communication skills, interpersonal sensitivity, autonomy, time management, and resilience. Employers and educators alike might also be interested to know our report findings revealed that three of the most popular subject areas UK professionals believe could future proof themselves by widening their skill sets are mental health, nutrition, diet and physical health, and managing finances.

Creating a wider variety of learning pathways alongside more conventional ‘hard skills’ training gives learners the chance to direct their personal growth alongside their professional development, while unlocking sought-after soft skills such as resilience, collaboration and interpersonal skills, and even remote working skills, to help them thrive in the modern workplace.

This past year, the higher education sector has proven just how quickly and effectively it can pivot to respond to the needs of its learners. Now is the time to keep up this momentum in order to deliver thoughtful courses and products that can help employers plug growing skills gaps, while meeting employee demand for opportunities to continuously enhance their skills throughout their careers.

Ian McIlwan, Director of Development and Partnerships at FutureLearn.com

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