Lack of upskilling opportunities risks "populist time bomb"

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​UK workers are given the fewest opportunities to upskill of all nationalities, according to PwC research

More than half (51%) of UK workers were offered no retraining opportunities, compared to a 26% global average – and 33% in the US and 31% in Germany for example. This also compared to only 5% in India and 3% in China.

Additionally, only 49% of UK workers say their employer is giving them the chance to improve their digital skills outside their normal duties, with just 14% saying that they are given many opportunities.

The Upskilling Hopes and Fears research – which surveyed more than 22,000 people in 11 markets – found that workers without education beyond school are getting the least opportunities to learn new skills, with 59% offered no opportunities by their employers compared to 44% of graduates.

It also found that 58% of UK adults are worried that automation is putting jobs at risk and 29% think that their job will be significantly changed or made obsolete by automation in the next 10 years. This made Brits the least well off of all the nationalities in this area too. In India and China for example seven in 10 (71% in India and 70% in China) think automation presents more opportunities than risks (even adjusting for cultural differences in responses, according to PwC).

Only half of UK workers (50%) feel well equipped to use new technologies entering the workplace, meaning UK workers feel the least equipped of all nationalities. The countries where workers feel best equipped were found to be India (91%), South Africa (80%) and China (78%).

Gareth Jones, visiting professor and executive in residence at IE Business School and former director of HR and internal communications at the BBC, said the fact those with the least education are being offered the fewest opportunities to reskill risks serious societal unrest and further political volatility.

“Even if you come from an elite educational background you’re going to have to upskill. We know now that AI will make routine legal work unskilled for example, so even those occupations are at risk,” he told HR magazine. “So if you’re at the bottom of the social structure you’re already disillusioned, and now you’re in grave danger not just of feeling like you’ve been left behind but actually being left behind… We’re in danger of fuelling a populist time bomb.”

The issue requires “a visionary combination” of “not just the state but also enlightened employers and charities” working together, he said.

The government must work to end a longstanding “snobbish attitude” towards vocational education and stop focusing attention and resources on “elite institutions”, Jones said, with greater funding for further education institutions needed. But employers and HR also have a vital role to play, he said.

HR has both a “positive and negative” motivation for giving the matter urgent attention, he explained: “The positive answer is we need employees equipped to handle the rapid rate of technical change. We’re not just talking about science businesses but all businesses – retail for example… The negative reason is if you don’t do this you’re going to be handling massive redundancy programmes fairly regularly, and we already have huge skills shortages.”

More positively, UK workers have strong appetite for learning and reskilling opportunities on the whole, according to the PwC report. More than half (54%) said that they’re ready to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their future employability, rising to 67% of 18- to 34-year-olds.

Additionally, three-quarters (73%) would take the opportunity to better understand or use technology if they were given the option by their employer.

“Organisations need to seize on people’s appetite to learn new skills. Too often assumptions are made about the type of worker who should be upskilled, so the opportunities are not evenly spread,” agreed Carol Stubbings, global leader of people and organisation at PwC.

Other demographics besides those with lower levels of educational attainment were also found to miss out on training. More than half (54%) of men surveyed say their employer is giving them the chance to learn new skills, as opposed to only 45% of women. Additionally, 64% of workers aged 18 to 34 say they are offered opportunities, compared with 48% of 35- to 54-year-olds and 41% aged 55 and older.

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