Dr Andrea Laczik is Head of Research at The Edge Foundation

National Occupational Standards: What Do Users Think? 

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, there’s a clear need to ensure that workers have the skills and competencies required to thrive in the future economy. Although new technologies offer increased efficiency and quality of life, they come with potential downsides. The de-skilling of jobs, loss of autonomy and reduction in the number (and quality) of social relationships heavily impact individuals. Societal inequality is another pressing concern – lower income groups generally lack access to innovations and changes in working conditions can result in job insecurity and higher levels of unemployment. Covid-19, of course, exacerbates these issues.

For many years, performance in the UK workplace has been underpinned by a framework of cross-industry National Occupational Standards (NOS). However, over time, responsibility for occupational competency has been gradually devolved across the four nations, while policy shifts in England mean that NOS are no longer official public policy here. This divergence offers employers more freedom but has had some unintended consequences. Greater fragmentation and competition, uncertainties in the labour market, and reduced portability of qualifications across the nations are just a few of these. This highlights the necessity for a solid architecture that considers the increasingly complex needs of 21st century workers and employers.

In light of this, Edge recently conducted research [Perspectives on National Occupational Standards: What Do Users Think?] commissioned by Skills Development Scotland on behalf of the NOS Governance Group, into the existing National Occupational Standards. Interviewing 28 stakeholders across the four nations, we explored perceptions of NOS and gathered visions for the future. All interviewees had considerable experience and expertise with NOS, hence an overwhelmingly positive response. Participants included a diverse mix of policy makers, regulators, standards and qualification developers, employers and education providers. 

Interviewees highlighted a range of challenges and areas of improvement with NOS depending on their job role. For instance, the need for sufficient resourcing to conduct further work on the NOS database to improve its search functionality and ensure faster updating of content. Some suggested the need to offer shorter, less-complex documents, with wider communication and marketing, to show how NOS can be used flexibly to meet the needs of specific target users. 

However, despite these challenges, participants consistently agreed that UK-wide standards are vital for tracking and measuring occupation competence. The overwhelming conclusion was that the existing NOS framework still has plenty to offer. Defining the nature and purpose of any future national occupational standards, and coordinating these with industrial strategy, will have myriad benefits. Not least, it would help workers develop the transferable skills required to transition between industries as the economic landscape shifts in unpredictable ways over the coming years. 

Other benefits of a new architecture based on the existing standards would be to reaffirm industry benchmarks and support the portability of quality-assured qualifications that apply across borders. The need for unified standards meeting these objectives was consistently highlighted by the research participants. But how might this look in practice? 

Despite NOS no longer being government policy in England, many employers and other stakeholders still use them. NOS are valued for their level of detail regarding what is expected in different roles. Participants in the study also felt that everyone would benefit from qualifications that reflect sector requirements and are endorsed by employers. This suggests NOS could still be an invaluable resource for determining the content of future qualifications. 

A case in point: The Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education is currently reviewing and updating its occupational maps. These workplace guidelines are used to help employers and individuals understand the different competencies required of them, and the routes of progression available. Based on the findings in the study, NOS could add great value to this work.

In their current form, the National Occupational Standards may not be the common framework they were once intended to be. But looking forward rather than dwelling on the past, evidence suggests that we should not underestimate their value. Naturally, there will challenges for governments taking this forward. Navigating the rapid pace of economic change and complexity of emerging technologies (not to mention the pandemic) requires agility and strategic thinking. Collaboration between business, broader society and devolved administrations will also be vital in shaping future approaches.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, NOS provides an opportunity to build on the strengths of what has come before. The Fourth Industrial Revolution means there’s an important role for high-quality re-skilling. There’s also a clear appetite for aligned occupational standards across the UK. The task ahead is not small, but it is eminently achievable. With improved national coordination, an employer-led approach and an honest dissection of the economic, social and policy realities in which we currently live, we can create a future-proofed system that works for all. And that’s a pretty hopeful thing to aim for.

Dr Andrea Laczik is Head of Research at The Edge Foundation and Trisha Fettes is an Edge Associate Researcher.


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