Lifelong Learning for Working People
The idea and practices of lifelong learning are now commonplace across much of the world, largely as a result of policy responses to accelerating economic change (Field 2006; Tuijnman and Boström 2002; Zapp and Dahmen 2017). The challenges to which lifelong learning is said to propose a solution, though, are multiple and complex. Across the globe, new technologies from digitization to robotics have come together with globalization off the economy and the consequent reconfiguration of work to transform the labor market for new entrants while placing new demands on older workers to adapt to changing career prospects. In many countries, particularly the established economies of North America, Asia, Europe, and Australasia, these trends are further impacted by a general shift away from manufacturing toward service employment, as well as by important social changes, including population aging and growing diversity arising from migration. At the same time changing social values have led to new expectations around the transition from education to work, as well as greater equality of access to working life and its rewards, along with wider interest in the quality of working life and its relationship to the rest of our lives.
Whether it is realistic to see education and training as the answer to these challenges is debateable. The entry explores the ways in which these tendencies have affected the demand for and supply of skilled labor, with considerable implications for governments, employers, and workers. The idea of lifelong learning can be understood as a response to these conditions, involving as it does the belief that workers of all ages and across sectors will be required to continue updating their skills and qualifications throughout their working lives. The entry will review policy responses by governments and international government bodies such as the OECD; it will also attempt to summarize the main trends in employer responses, though these are inevitably diverse and uneven. It will also examine the available evidence on trends in worker participation in continuing education and training. Finally, it will review the ways in which information technology is being adopted as a solution to the challenges of continuous workforce development and cautiously assess the impact of these developments, including recent initiatives in open education.
The Inexorable Rise of Lifelong Learning
The OECD recently commented that: “Skills have become the global currency of the 21st century” (OECD 2012, 3). Such language is familiar, and the case for investing in skills is widely accepted – so much so that there might be a risk of taking it for granted. In recent years, governments have responded to the challenges of the global knowledge economy by paying increasing attention to skills and education, not only among young people still in school but also among the existing workforce. While one possible response to population aging in the West is to attract skilled migrants, this is often politically controversial, and anyway migrants also grow older over time. And one country’s immigration is another country’s emigration, leading to a loss of skilled workers with subsequent negative effects on productivity and competitiveness (Docquier et al. 2014). So for many governments, as well as for many enterprises, increasing the adaptability, productivity, and employability of workers and improving their capacity for lifelong learning present a pressing challenge.
The European Commission, one of a number of international and national government bodies that has recently embraced the idea of lifelong learning, defines it as “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective” (Commission of the European Communities 2001, 9). What was significant here was not simply the idea of developing policies for learning at all stages of the life course but also the idea that learning took place in all spheres of life and not just in formal educational settings. Like most other government bodies, the Commission emphasized the breadth of the term, which they understand as encompassing “the full range of formal, non-formal and informal learning activity” (Commission of the European Communities 2001, 9).
The breadth of this definition poses challenges to policy-makers, as it potentially addresses any form of learning – however trivial, wherever undertaken, and whether the learner is conscious of it or not. But it was clearly intended to shift attention away from an input model which focused on planned instruction in formal settings, toward an output model which focused on the learner and his or her development. It was therefore consistent with the slightly earlier shift in those concerned with promoting learning at work, who increasingly described themselves as human resource developers or coaches and less and less as trainers. And more broadly, the language of skills and training is itself changing as part of this preoccupation with learning throughout and across the life course. Simply to take one particularly striking example, the organization founded in 1943 the American Society of Training Directors, which changed its title in 1964 to the American Society for Training and Development, renamed – and rebranded – itself in 2014 as the Association for Talent Development, or ATD (Torraco 2016).
These developments have expanded the contexts and concepts of work-related learning beyond the relatively narrow confines of the classroom or training center. Unsurprisingly, popular understandings of training tend to be far more narrow and specific than the broad definitions that are used by researchers and policy-makers, and it follows that training levels go underreported in many surveys (Campanelli and Channell 1994). More recent evidence from the UK Employer Skills Survey suggests that many managers do not recognize coaching or mentoring as forms of training, but are likely to understand training as involving a relatively simple transfer and acquisition of knowledge and skills between expert and novice (Winterbotham et al. 2011, 11–14). Rather than an “acquisition” mode of learning, recent theories of learning have tended to understand learning in terms of “participation,” “construction,” or “co-construction” (Sfard 1998; Engeström 2001; Illeris 2018).
The notion of skill at first appears relatively straightforward, at least by comparison with the idea of training. But again it has connotations that can be loaded down with cultural baggage, and these too have evolved and changed as a result of new perspectives. In general, the idea of skills has acquired a strongly positive gloss, and it has sometimes displaced older terms like adult training or education. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has branded its international study of workers’ basic competences as the “adult skills survey” (OECD 2013). In Britain, the word was for long associated with status hierarchies inside the labor force; a “skilled worker” (or, often, a “skilled man”) was someone who had completed a particular type of apprenticeship and whose status and autonomy was often fiercely protected by trade unions. More recently, the term has been enlarged in response to underlying changes in the economy, which have resulted in the use of the term to encompass attributes such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, and other so-called generic skills or soft skills.
In practice, though, much workforce training is not really concerned with learning new skills – at least, not in the sense in which most people use the word. Quite a high volume of training is undertaken in order to comply with legislative requirements or regulatory frameworks, which demand that people train to a specified standard regardless of whether they already have this knowledge or not. In Britain, for example, 71% of employers reported that they had provided health and safety training in 2011 (Davies et al. 2012, 113), almost all of which was designed to underpin compliance with legislation.
Widespread adoption of the language and idea of lifelong learning has involved a new verbal emphasis. This has affected perceptions of those involved professionally in the field, with many people now referring more to supporting learning rather than providing training and teaching. Illeris dates the origins of this change back to the 1970s, when influential theorists such as Argyris and Schön helped to refocus attention on acquisition rather than instruction; by around 1990, he suggests that the language of learning increasingly took on a social dimension, evident not only in concepts of situated learning or activity theory but also in more popular notions of the learning organization, learning city, or learning region (Illeris 2018). Greatly influenced by the seminal and popularly written work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on situated learning, constructivist theories emphasize the ways in which workers produce and share their skills and knowledge through participation in the workplace (Lave and Wenger 2001). In this model, rather than trainers and trainees, learning occurs when a novice participant is accompanied and guided by more experienced workers from peripheral to full participation.
Yet although learning is increasingly seen understood by many practitioners and researchers as an intrinsically social practice, policy perspectives often focus on the role of individuals. I have argued elsewhere that the discursive shift toward lifelong learning is associated with a wider rebalancing of responsibilities for learning, with a reduced role for the state and increases in the responsibility of individuals and employers to invest in and coordinate upskilling and talent development (Field 2006).
These definitional and terminological issues help us understand why it can sometimes be challenging to agree on how skills and training should be measured. At enterprise level, Kirkpatrick’s model of training evaluation has dominated the field since its first publication in the 1960s (Kirkpatrick 1967). This model proposed four “levels” of criteria for evaluating training: reactions, or how people feel about the training they have received; learning, or what they know as a result of the training; behavior, or what they can now do; and results, understood as the influence that the new skills and knowledge have on the organization’s performance. While this model has been widely criticized in the academic literature as oversimplifying training, and presenting the outcomes as a linear sequence organized in an unproblematic hierarchy, its clarity and applicability continue to appeal to professionals in the field (Yardley and Dornan 2012). Surveys of current practice tend to confirm the view that few organizations have moved toward more creative ways of evaluating and measuring training. In countries such as the UK, for example, the most frequently used tools are post-course evaluations (commonly known as “happy sheets”), and individual testimonies, followed by attempts to measure outcomes, and finally by assessments of the impact on key business objectives (CIPD 2011, 5). Similarly, most US training managers use only the low-effort levels of evaluation, such as measuring participant reactions and assessing their learning, with relatively few attempting to estimate the results in organizational terms or calculate the return on investment (ASTD 2010, 21).
This focus on simple evaluation tools is a rational response to the difficulties of estimating the organizational return on investment from training. The first challenge is to distinguish the effects of training from all the other factors in the workplace that might affect productivity. Very few studies have tried to separate out the impact of training from the effects of other strategic interventions, such as team membership changes, appraisal, profit sharing, or worker participation in decisions (for an exception, see Akhtar et al. 2008). The second is to discriminate between the effects of training on the worker and the influence of the worker’s characteristics on skills acquisition; economists believe, for example, that employer selection decisions are biased in favor of the most capable workers, so that employers sometimes overestimate the results of training activities (Vignoles et al. 2004). Third, at company level, there is some empirical support for the intuitive belief that low-performance enterprises are less likely to train than high-performance enterprises (Dearden et al. 2006; Zwick 2006). Finally, there is the question of time scale: in many cases, a considerable time period is needed to monitor the effects of training, yet company goals are often measured over the short term; even if managers are willing to take the long view, the prospects of other factors intervening are increased.
Economics, particularly in the form of human capital theory, has made a particular contribution to the measurement debate. Essentially, this theory states that skills and knowledge represent a form of capital, part of which is the result of deliberate investment. Initially the idea was developed by Theodore Schultz as a way of exploring the economic value of education, particularly in relation to economic growth (Schultz 1961). Subsequently the theory was developed by Gary Becker, who extended the analysis to include continuing training as well as other investments in skills, as well as developing a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis as a way of explaining educational decisions. Becker distinguished, for example, between general training, which he claimed was mainly of benefit to the worker as it raised their future wages by improving their attractiveness to other employers, and firm-specific training, which he saw as more likely to benefit the employer, by raising productivity without raising wages (Becker 1993, 31–51). For Becker, this distinction meant that employers would pay for specific training, but normally general training would be paid for by the worker. He also argued that employers would invest more in those workers where they could expect the greatest return, one side effect of which was lower investment in women workers who typically spent less time in the labor force than men (Becker 1993, 88).
Human capital theory has been widely criticized for what some see as its excessive individualism and its reliance on rational choice models of decision-making (Field 2003, 21–22; Tan 2014). By treating skill as an attribute of the individual worker and explaining all decisions as the result of rational calculations of individual rates of return, it is argued that human capital theory is deeply flawed conceptually and unable to deal with the socially embedded nature of decision-making. The theory has also been attacked for its use of oversimplified tools of measurement, such as years of schooling or the gaining of formal qualifications, which are unrelated to actual skills and abilities. Finally, it tends to present a direct linear model of investment and return, yet empirically much research on returns to education have suggested that the relationship may be multilinear and iterative (these concerns are rehearsed in Field et al. (2000, 249–251). Nevertheless, the theory certainly has some explanatory power and has been widely supplemented by forms of cost-benefit analysis to inform decisions about the funding of training and development activities.
Securing Knowledge and Skills Development
Skills and their development command almost universal support. Policy-makers proclaim that upskilling will lead to greater competitiveness, inclusion, and cohesion, while employers and trade unions alike proclaim their support for training and development. In fact, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who opposes upskilling. In part, this arises from simple demographics. The US Census Bureau expects more than 20% of residents by 2030 to be aged 65 and over, compared with 13% in 2010 and 9.8% back in 1970 (US Census Bureau 2014). Other advanced nations, particularly Japan and South Korea, anticipate much more dramatic rises in the proportion of over 65s (Bengtsson and Scott 2013). Conversely, the share of those of traditional working age in the population is falling, and governments, employers, and individuals increasingly accept that working life will, in many cases, be longer than most people previously expected. The adaptability and employability of this aging workforce, and therefore the productivity and competitiveness of enterprises and nations, depends in large part on the extent to which it can continue to develop and apply new skills and abilities.
Governments, individuals, and employers have an interest in developing strategies for upskilling the workforce and developing potential. Yet despite the policy consensus in favor of upskilling, and widespread evidence that it has both private and social benefits, there are controversies over the best ways of promoting continuing training. Particularly contested areas include the funding of training, and in particular, the question of who should pay for what? To what extent should the state intervene, whether as direct provider of learning and development or as an enabler and incentivizer? Moreover, as well as the financing of skill formation, Busemeyer and Trampusch identify three other “neuralgic points” of conflict: the tension between enterprise autonomy and state involvement (who controls what), the balance between school and firm in initial vocational education and training, and the relationship between the VET system and the wider educational system (Busemeyer and Trampusch 2012b, 16). In addition, when it comes to continuing skills development for the adult workforce, there is the question of what involvement public education bodies such as universities and colleges should have and on what basis.
Moreover, much policy focus has concentrated, perhaps understandably, on areas of identifiable growth. In occupational terms, this has often led policy-makers to present summaries of labor market trends that show an increase in high-skill employment and project a continued decline of low-skilled jobs. However, as the OECD has noted, while there is indeed growth in some high-skill occupations, such as managers and scientists, the loss of traditional male unskilled jobs has been largely balanced by a growth of low-paid service jobs, which happen often to be performed by women and migrant workers; it is the middle-skill jobs that tend to experience relative declines, whether in services or in manufacturing, partly because these occupations can be transformed through computerization or even automation (OECD 2010, 24–25).
From a policy perspective, the pace of change and the degree of uncertainty in the labor market imply a focus on providing workers with robust skills and the capacity to develop new competences. This requires strong basic skills (literacy, numeracy, and information technology) through initial education or through compensatory measures for those who did not develop these basic skills earlier in life. Increasingly, governments are also seeking ways of developing what are sometimes called generic or key skills or transversal competences, such as problem-solving, teamworking, communications, and, perhaps above all, “learning to learn” (Commission of the European Communities 2010, 10). In developing its policies for skills and employment, the European Commission continues to call for “comprehensive lifelong learning” as a way of achieving the balance of flexible and secure employment that it describes as “flexicurity” (Commission of the European Communities 2010, 5–6).
There is also an emerging debate over the balance between supply and demand. Particularly in Britain, it has been argued that public policy focuses almost exclusively on the supply of skill, largely ignoring other factors involved in determining productivity, such as investment strategies and work organization (Keep et al. 2006). In some countries, though, policy attention has recently widened to encompass the utilization of skills as well as their formation. This development is usually dated back to a 2001 report, in which the OECD argued that it was not enough simply to invest in improved skills; if new skills were to contribute to improved performance, it proposed that work practices must also change. This was not, the OECD stated, simply a matter of introducing new techniques and tools; it also meant “a reorganization of work,” with particular attention to such factors as employee involvement, flexible working, and flatter hierarchies that favored high-performance working and technological innovation (OECD 2001, 15–16). OECD has described these features as characteristics of the “learning organization,” accompanied by human resource practices that are aligned with the goal of continuous learning and smooth internal communications (OECD 2010, 73–74).
So far, the policy implications of a focus on skills utilization are not entirely clear. Nevertheless, strategies that seek to make the best use of existing skills, as well as developing new ones, have considerable potential if they can be operationalized in concrete ways. They are likely to be particularly important for enterprises that employ significant numbers of such groups as older workers, who are likely to remain active in the labor market where their existing knowledge and competences are recognized (Canning 2011; OECD 2012, 64–72). While there are some individual examples of improvement in skills utilization at enterprise level, sometimes involving support from trade unions as well as managers, this remains a work in progress (OECD 2017).
Developing Skills in Practice
Investing in skills can take a variety of forms. Particularly with the advent of interest in lifelong learning, human resource managers have started to explore a broad range of ways of developing skills. In part, this is also a response to the changing nature of work, as well as to the increasing potential of new technologies as ways of communicating information and ideas. A number of studies suggest that while face-to-face delivery remains the norm, it is increasingly being challenged by newer forms of training (CEDEFOP 2010, 65). These include blended learning, coaching, and mentoring, all of which appear to be particularly prominent in the UK but are being widely adopted across the European Union (Observatoire CEGOS 2012, 3). More radical forms of innovative learning, such as job rotation and learning circles, are used relatively rarely; however, job rotation is an important additional form of training in some countries, particularly Sweden and Austria, while learning circles are similarly important in Austria and Denmark (CEDEFOP 2010, 66). Finally, the adoption of digitized learning resources, and their often instant availability through mobile devices, is increasingly influencing approaches to supporting lifelong learning at work and in the community.
Estimates of the overall volume of skill development are plentiful, but often difficult to interpret. The 2010 European Continuing Vocational Training Survey found that participation rates ranged from a low of 11% of the workforce in Latvia to a high of 59% in the Czech Republic, with an average of 38% (up from 33% in 2005); the proportion of enterprises providing training ranged from 85% in Denmark down to 21% in Greece (CEDEFOP 2015, 66–69). Trend data suggest that adult participation in training is rising. According to one global survey, the proportion of employers training and developing existing employees to fill open positions doubled between 2006 and 2016 from one in five to over half (Manpower 2017). Of course, these are overall figures. In practice, participation in training varies enormously across the workforce.
Training provision varies by sector, with the highest participation rates found in sectors involving person-to-person services. In the UK, for example, the Employer Skills Survey has shown that training levels are much higher than average in health, social care, and education, followed closely by public administration and financial services; it is notably below average in agriculture, manufacturing, transport, and communications (Davies et al. 2012, 110). European data also suggest that formalized arrangements for training are most common in the finance sector, followed by the gas, water, and electricity industries (CEDEFOP 2015).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, participation is higher in firms where collective bargaining covers training than in those where there are no joint agreements (CEDEFOP 2010, 55–57). Some governments actively involve trade unions in promoting levels of training and ensuring its relevance. In the UK, for example, the government sought to promote investment in training by encouraging the appointment from 2000 of workplace union learning representatives (ULR); by 2009, over 10,000 union members had served for at least a period as a ULR, most of whom had never held a union office previously (Saundry et al. 2010, 12). The UK Government also supports trade union provision of education and training through its Union Learning Fund. Managers reported that in some cases, ULRs have also helped develop new courses, particularly in basic skills areas such as literacy, computing, and numeracy (Saundry et al. 2010).
Participation also varies by worker characteristics. Age is a major factor, with participation falling rapidly over the life course (Boateng 2009, 3). According to OECD data, older people also receive the lowest number of hours of continuing training (OECD 2011, 367). In aging societies, the retention and productive employment of older workers is a key issue for governments and for many enterprises, as well as for older workers themselves. Encouraging greater upskilling though lifelong learning is a popular policy response, though its importance and form will varies according to the existing level of older workers’ skills. In countries like the USA, where older workers perform well in skills assessments and also appear to use these skills as much as younger workers, employability rates for older workers tend to be relatively high. Even in ICT usage, survey data suggest relatively low age differentials across the US workforce (OECD 2018, 77–78).
Immigrant workers experience lower levels of training than the native born (Rosenbladt and Bilger 2011, 67). Occupational status is another factor, with participation rates rising among white collar workers and peaking among managers and professionals (Boateng 2009, 4; Rosenbladt and Bilger 2011, 68). And it varies by prior education, with particularly low participation rates in most countries among workers with no formal qualifications (Boateng 2009, 5; OECD 2011, 377). Seen from the perspective of human capital theory, the most precarious and least skilled appear to represent a poor investment. There is some empirical support for this generalization, in the form of survey evidence on the priorities of human resource and training managers in enterprises (Observatoire CEGOS 2012, 4). In general, these patterns can be found across most countries, though the inequalities are greater in some cases than others.
Gender is also a factor that affects participation, though not necessarily in a straightforward manner. Some evidence points to an under-representation of women. For example, in 18 of the 25 countries covered by the OECD, men received more hours of training than women (OECD 2011, 368). However, overall figures for the UK suggest that training provision is broadly in line with the share of women in the workforce, while female participation is slightly above that of men (Canduela et al. 2012, 47; Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2008, 29). The same has been found for Germany, where roughly the same proportions of men and women participate in vocational training (43% against 42%); among part-time workers in Germany, women were more likely to undergo training than men (Rosenbladt and Bilger 2011, 65–66). These patterns can be extremely difficult to interpret and evaluate, partly because of the persistence of gendered labor markets, arising from the tendency of some occupations to remain predominantly female while others remain predominantly male. There is also some evidence that some women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, tend to make different occupational choices from men, though whether this is for positive or for negative reasons remains contentious (Hakim 1996). One analysis of data from the European Social Survey, which controlled for such other factors as worker and occupational characteristics, found that all other things being equal, male workers in any given category were more likely to participate in training than their female equivalents (Dieckhoff and Steiber 2011). For some commentators, this is explicable in terms of human capital theory: employers are likely to invest less in women workers because they are less prone to stay with the firm, and therefore the return on investment will be lower; and women workers are likely to underinvest in training if they see themselves as secondary earners (Hakim 1996, 69, 121). In so far as these factors cease to characterize women workers, then the human capital argument implies that women workers will receive similar training investment to their male counterparts.
Such equity issues have a wider importance, as a number of studies show that for people of working age, access to education is largely decided or denied by their occupational position. Work-related learning accounts for much participation in adult education more generally (Boateng 2009, 3). More broadly, much of the variation in participation in learning more generally appears to be explained by transitions in the workplace (Biesta et al. 2011, 38–40). As we have seen, moreover, participating in training has a number of positive outcomes for individuals and organizations, as well as for regions and nations. In adopting lifelong learning policies from the late 1990s, a number of countries insisted that their policies would promote “lifelong learning for all,” in the belief that the new economy required a step change in skill levels across the board and not only among a small number of key workers (Field 2006; OECD 2012). Relatively few countries have succeeded in achieving this balanced approach to skills, though in general, the open Nordic economies tend to be characterized by high overall participation and low levels of inequality. Drawing on survey data, Dieckhoff and Steiber found that although inequalities were similar in all the 25 countries studied, they appeared to be less pronounced in the Nordic nations (Dieckhoff and Steiber 2011, 151).
The question of how training is financed is both complex and vexed. There is considerable controversy over the level of investment in skills, as well as in the distribution of investment between government, workers, and employers; furthermore, levels of government support vary considerably across countries. In general, large firms tend to spend more per worker on training than smaller firms (Davies et al. 2012, 124; CEDEFOP 2015, 178–179). The average spend is also higher in financial and business services than in other sectors (CEDEFOP 2015; Davies et al. 2012, 129). Analysis of the European CVT Survey suggests an average spending by enterprises across the EU on training of 1.6% of total labor costs, ranging from a high of 2.5% in France to a low of 0.7% in Greece (CEDEFOP 2015). Spending in the United States was somewhat higher, averaging around 2.14% of payroll (ASTD 2010, 9). The contribution coming from government varies both in level and type; in Europe, types of government support at national level range from tax incentives and direct subsidies to grants to firms or individuals, with subsidies also available from the European Commission to support some types of training program within the member states.
Professionalization of training has developed unevenly in recent years. Across Europe, some 15% of enterprises have a training center, 32% have a dedicated training budget, and 42% have a named individual with overall responsibility for training. In all these cases, larger firms were more likely to have dedicated resources, and smaller firms were less likely (CEDEFOP 2010, 38–40). As for training supply, much takes place within the private sector, which is large and fragmented, with a small number of very large providers, often providing training as one of several business services or as an addition to their main product (as in IT supply), and a very large number of small providers, including a sizeable number of sole traders who may provide training on an intermittent or part-time basis. In many countries, this disparate private sector has grown rapidly. A study conducted just before the recession in the UK noted that the number of training providers registered for value-added tax doubled between 2000 and 2008 (Simpson 2009, 10).
A number of commentators have singled out the Northern European nations as particularly successful, often attributing their effectiveness at skills formation to the arrangement of institutions that are sometimes referred to as “coordinated market economies” (Green et al. 2006). Of course, such arrangements are themselves dynamic and must adapt to changing circumstances. They are currently in a significant process of adjustment as a result not only of globalized competitive pressures and the shift away from manufacturing and primary industry but also as a result of Europeanization and changing political complexion of the governments (and electorates) involved. While these change factors are commonly acknowledged in the literature (see the essays in Busemeyer and Trampusch 2012a), it is less often recognized that these collective skill arrangements appear to be much stronger in strengthening initial vocational training than they are in promoting continuing skills development.
Trends and Prospects
Skills development is widely embraced as a way of securing future success in an uncertain economic environment. In many countries, investment in adult training and development appears to be increasing in response to widely shared challenges and opportunities. Yet although there is a strong general consensus on the value of skills, and the need to promote learning and development throughout working life, there is less agreement on the priorities and methods to be adopted. Partly this is because there are real differences of interest at stake, in a context where different parts of any organization will have different interests and where information about the outcomes of training is often incomplete and unevenly shared. It is still common for many managers to view training as a cost, rather than as an investment; and it is also common for governments, particularly in the more liberal economies like Britain and the USA, to separate training programs for vulnerable groups (such as the unemployed) from policies for skills training in industry, which tend to view training as primarily a private concern. This is, then, a field characterized by continuing tensions and uncertainties.
Some of these arise from conflicts between current economic patterns and interests on the one hand and those that we may view as desirable to achieve sustainable growth. If policies focus on skills for high-performance organizations, which may be in the long-term public interest, then they will likely neglect those organizations that specialize in low-cost and low-quality goods and services. Yet in the actually existing economy, low-skill employment may be an important driver of growth for certain regions or nations, even if its long-term fortunes are highly vulnerable to competition from other low-cost regions. Moreover, I have already noted that much recent research into skills development tends to emphasize the importance of knowledge creation within work teams, which requires a very different approach to strategy and policy from traditional training responses (Felstead et al. 2009, 203–48). Research into informal learning in the workplace has demonstrated the significance of relationships of reciprocity and trust, which enable the sharing of ideas, techniques, and solutions to problems. Strategies and policies that foster such conditions are likely to prove extremely challenging for many managers, and also for many trainers, who will see them as involving decisions and choices that are outside their traditional expertise. Despite improvements in recent years, moreover, human resource development still has relatively low status within many organizations. The dominant management cliché, which speaks of people as “our most important asset,” risks reinforcing a culture of cynicism unless it is supported by real substance.
A further source of tension arises from the growth and proliferation of training suppliers. The growing economic importance of learning in a global knowledge economy creates new economic opportunities for skills developers and trainers. We can see this in the rapidly expanding number of private providers in the UK (Simpson 2009). The “third sector” of voluntary and charitable organizations is also extremely active in many countries in providing training. In this ever more complex and crowded market place, quality assurance becomes a crucial issue. Among other “kitemarks,” the continuing development of specifications through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a particularly important example of a wider development. Most recently, the ISO has approved basic requirements for providers of learning services in nonformal education and training, ISO 29990:2010. Its underlying aim is to enhance transparency and allow comparison on a worldwide basis of learning services. However, this too is a crowded field. Within the EU, member states and the European Commission have been working to establish a European Quality Assurance Reference Framework (EQAVET) to promote and monitor continuous improvement of national systems of vocational education and training (VET). Whether such schemes will develop any traction in such a disparate and growing area, which at present is largely unregulated outside certain specialist areas, remains at present an open question.
Skills and learning are also being transformed by the very processes of change and adaptability that they are often intended to address. This is visibly the case with new technologies, where digitization in particular has started to transform the availability and portability of learning resources, as well as widening the scope and reach of older training methods such as simulations and game-based learning. Massive open online courses are one example; an initial scoping report for the OECD suggested that they were “particularly well-suited to corporate learning and development,” partly because of their accessibility and low cost, as well as the possibilities for peer interaction and credentialization that the technology affords; they were less good, though, at engaging less motivate learners, and their large scale made them unsuitable for personalized development (OECD 2016). Newer and more flexible forms of open education, from the adoption of open educational resources to gamification, are still in their early stages; whether they can overcome some of the limitations of MOOCs is still unclear, and at the time of writing, their use is mainly in the form of blended learning, complementing more established face-to-face forms of training and development.
Skills development for the adult workforce is one of the main levers for survival and success in a highly competitive global market place. By the same token, it must play a central role in expanding workforce participation and ensuring that all are able to make the most of their potential. It is therefore a topic of interest to policy-makers and researchers, as well as to those who lead enterprises and manage their workforce. As we have seen, there is also a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates the impact of training and skills development for individuals, which means that the subject is therefore of wider social interest to the public and the media. Sometimes, skills and training can be presented as “magic bullets” which will crack a previously unsolved problem, from racism in the police to disasters on oil rigs. Yet there is often a sense that skills and training are “unsexy” subjects that only hit the headlines when things go wrong, or when they impinge upon an issue of wider concern, such as youth unemployment. The vested interests in the current focus on initial training and education for the young are powerful forces; if we are to witness a shift toward upskilling the whole workforce at every stage of working life, as recent policy trends imply, then the degree of culture change required will be very considerable indeed.
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