A widening gap between rapid technological development and the skills necessary for the 21st century workplace is holding back most economies.
Ahead of the launch of the OECD’s PISA report on school students’ performance in mathematics, science and reading, Andreas Schleicher, the organisation’s Director for Education and Skills and policy adviser to the Secretary General, commented: “Technology is racing ahead of the skills people have. This is the challenge of our times.”
As many economies struggle to cope with difficult circumstances and new challenges, the need to invest in new skills and lifelong learning has never been greater.
“There is no longer a digital economy, there is the economy,” said Schleicher. “People work harder than ever before but there are declining levels of productivity. Never before have people who do not have skills paid the price they pay today. People with average skills are those suffering the most.”
Emphasising the increasing importance of skills to economic growth, Schleicher argued that Governments must realise that “you cannot just bail your way out of a crisis. You can give people the skills that drive the economy forward.”
People with skills are “three times as likely to earn a good wage” and “see themselves as actors in the political process, rather than as objects”, he added.
At a time when “graduates cannot find jobs, while employers cannot find people with skills,” the major challenge for many economies is “how to anticipate changing demands for skills.”
“It is not just about robots taking over the factories,” but instead about ensuring continuing digital and global literacy.
In an era in which the pace of change will only continue to increase, there is an urgent need for a new approach, which will enable people to take ownership of their learning, in order to acquire the skills they need. In the last decade alone, the scale of technological change has been enormous. Schleicher reminded the audience in a plenary session, chaired by former BBC news anchor Nik Gowing, that “in 2006, we didn’t have the i-phone, google maps or digital printing.”
Major priorities should be “fostering life-long skills”, “integrating the world of work and the world of learning” and to “keep (people) learning beyond schools”. Describing the workplace as “an amazing opportunity to learn”, he said that “we are not equipping people for work today” and there is “virtually no country where people have 10 per cent more skills than they need for work today.”
He praised Finland, Sweden, Denmark and other northern European countries, as well as Vietnam and China for doing more than most to equip their citizens for jobs in the modern workplace but said that, in general, a lack of investment in enabling people to acquire relevant skills was having a serious effect on many societies. “Those who pay the cost are those who are poorly skilled.”
Investment in lifelong skills is essential for economic growth. “We do not have another choice. If we just focus on institutionalised learning we will fail. We have to invest in people. We have to shift towards making lifelong learning a reality.”
The PISA report, which is based on tests of 15 year-old pupils in both OECD member and non-member countries, is published every three years. It aims to measure problem solving capacity and cognition, giving Governments the statistical support they need to improve policies and produce better results.
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