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Tackling the UK’s skills shortage requires a new approach to learning

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

Technology is rapidly transforming every realm of our lives – from how we communicate to how we work and the type of work we’re doing.

Anthony Tattersall, Head of EMEA at Coursera, has a fresh approach to tackling the UK skills shortage.

Q) There are mounting fears around a perceived skills gap – do you think people, particularly young people, are prepared for the sort of roles needed in the future of work?

A) It’s no secret that there’s a real skills shortage here in the UK. Businesses are starting to feel the squeeze already – one study suggests the country is losing out on £63bn a year because companies are struggling to find people with digital skills, and Coursera’s Global Skills Index found that two-thirds of the world’s population is falling behind in critical skills, like data science and analytics. It’s an issue that will only become more prevalent over the next decade.

Some studies suggest 2 out of 3 children who are in primary school right now will hold a job that doesn’t even exist yet. With that, 42 per cent of the core job skills required today are set to change substantially by 2022. That may sound surprising, but it isn’t when you consider that we’re living through one of the most transformational periods of technological innovation in human history. To secure a bright future, we need to build an educational framework that empowers young people to learn continuously throughout their lives, adapting to the ever-changing skills landscape. 

Q) What are the key drivers behind this demand for people trained in disciplines like data science and analytics?

A) It’s largely down to digital transformation, which touches practically every industry today. The phrase “data is the new oil” has become commonplace – that’s because organisations are starting to use data to transform their business model. But like any tool, data is only useful if it’s in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. Hence roles in data and analytics are increasingly sought-after — even more so because those with requisite skills are in very short supply. Given the challenges of hiring from a sparse talent pool and rapidly changing requirements for the workforce to remain competitive, businesses today are having to prioritise the reskilling and upskilling of employees to meet the data demands of their organisations.

Q) What should businesses be doing to try and bridge the skills gap?

A) I see this as a two-pronged approach. Firstly, government, educators and businesses alike, need to prioritise preparing young people for the future workplace by equipping them with the real-world skills they need to land a job. This is about more than just encouraging more young people to study STEM subjects. For really technical jobs – like data science or programming – we need to ensure people have practical skills they can apply to the realities of a job. It’s not just about these hard skills though. People also need to have what are commonly referred to as “soft skills” - the ability to communicate their insights to the wider business, collaboration, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership.

Businesses have a major role to play in this. Upskilling employees is critical to mitigating the UK’s skills shortage. The need for organisations to digitally transform is well-publicised – but digital transformation is as much about people as it is about technology. As part of investing in talent training, companies must also be careful to focus on acquiring skills that are most relevant for their industry and respective employee functions. It’s easy to get caught up in trending skills like data science and artificial intelligence, but truly transformative upskilling looks a little different for every organisation.

Novartis is a great example of an organisation driving digital transformation through learning. Through a partnership with Coursera, Novartis is equipping 108,000 employees with critical data science and digital skills and setting the stage for rapid innovation.

Q) Why should organisations care about upskilling their current employees?

A) Building a culture with deliberate growth and learning opportunities for employees is important for a few reasons. First, because it is good for business. Businesses that commit to upskilling their workforce and acquiring the skills that power the Fourth Industrial Revolution will win in the new economy. This is all about improving business outcomes against a backdrop of global competition, disruptive start-ups and rapidly changing technologies. There is also a major cost-benefit to training talent — reskilling an internal hire can be done for as little as one-sixth the cost of hiring an internal candidate. Beyond the obvious bottom-line benefit, employees are happier in a work environment that encourages their career development.  Offering on-the-job training can have a tangible impact on employee satisfaction and retention, with 21 per cent of employees reporting that they are more likely to stay with employers that support their development.

Q) How effective are online courses in preparing people for a technical job, like data science?

A) Data science, AI and computer programming are cutting-edge and rapidly evolving technical fields, so teaching them also requires a new approach. Traditional classroom or lecture-style lessons can help set the foundation, but students need new ways of learning that tests their mastery of new skills and can be fitted around their work commitments. Online courses can offer a more flexible learning environment that is well-suited for teaching technical subjects like data science. People can learn at their own pace, and online courses often offer applied learning opportunities, through simulations or games, that really test a learner’s theoretical knowledge in a practical way.   

Q) What is applied learning, and how can it be effective for teaching technical subjects like computer programming or data science – especially online?

A) We’ve all heard the maxim that people “learn by doing”. This is the premise of applied learning - consolidating your understanding of the material through real world application. 

If your goal is to land a job as a data scientist, a company will appreciate  your theoretical prowess in the subject  – but they’ll also want to know that you can program with Python, or that you can pull and analyse large data sets and use insights to inform business decisions. Online courses that offer a hands-on learning element can help prepare learners for these practical business scenarios.

For example, University of London used Coursera Labs to build a fun, interactive detective puzzle for students studying their Introduction to Computer Programming course. The custom application, called Sleuth, challenges students to apply their coding knowledge to solve mysteries.

Providing people – especially young people, who lack experience working in a business environment – with the opportunity to truly test their skills with the tools used in today’s workplace will be crucial to building a future-proofed workforce, and closing the skills gap.

Anthony Tattersall, Head of EMEA, Coursera