From May 15 to 21, 2017, TQUK is supporting Learning at Work Week. This is an important campaign for employers and employees around the country to help emphasize the importance of continued, workplace and lifelong learning. As an awarding organization, we believe in the power of learning and that knowledge acquisition contributes positively to society and people’s lives. It is now more important than even to invest in lifelong learning, given the UK's short and medium term future.

The labour market will change drastically in the next few years in the UK. Several very large and complex problems will be hitting the country over the next few years, each with its own challenges. In the immediate term, there is Brexit. The complicated process of leaving the EU is supposed to be complete by the spring of 2019, adding huge amounts of uncertainty to various sectors. There is a current skills shortage and a looming labour shortage on the horizon. Automation threatens to eliminate swathes of jobs in many sectors. Workers are also living longer and retiring later, presenting the challenges of crowding in certain sectors and the need for newer workers to consider the possibility of several careers over a lifetime.

The skills gap is well-worn territory. A shortage of people with skills in the trades and various other technical areas like engineering are in short supply, forcing employers to sit on their money.

To pile on the challenges, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has stated that the number of workers whose level of training is appropriately matched to their job has been steadily declining since 2012, and will only get worse. There is also, of course, the rise of part-time and precarious work, the scourge of the young and unskilled. The Trade Union Congress recently stated that the number of low-paid workers in precarious work has increased by 84% in the last decade.

The UK economy will also change drastically when it leaves the EU in 2019. The rise of part-time and precarious work, because of the uncertainty presented, seems inevitable. AoC chief executive David Hughes has said, “[when] the UK leaves the EU, it will be vital to the economy that adults are able to train and retrain to tackle the skills gap.” Hughes goes on to say that many “are deterred from studying due to the cost of attending courses.” The common response to such issues is to invest in training. However, current and future trends in the UK economy will make increased spending by companies unlikely. This is an area where government could step in and invest in people that companies will not.

And then there is the nigh-on existential threat posed by advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Industries like water treatment, transport, wholesaling, retail, and other sectors that require either dangerous or low-skilled labour are set to have whole swathes of their workforce replaced by artificial intelligence and/or robots. It is estimated that more than 10 million workers in the UK are at risk of redundancy, with 30% of all jobs in the UK under threat, says the PwC. What will all these people, demoralised and underskilled, do?

It is more imperative than ever to invest in individuals. The more you invest in your workers, through continued education programs, the more people see in return. A continually educated workforce will be more nimble in responding to economic changes and thus make their businesses more competitive. Continuous education also gives workers new skills they can apply to their jobs, or jobs that they get later in life. Proactive upskilling is also vital to make sure employees’ skills are fresh and up to date.

And while young people are the emphasis (and should be) when discussing the future, it is older workers that need to be seen as a new pool of recipients of training. Peter Mayhew-Smith, Inquiry Chair of the Principal of Kingston and Carlshalton College, states that ‘[older] workers constitute the single largest pool of untapped potential in Britain. With the challenges that lie ahead, it is crucial we build on their wealth of skills, experience and collective wisdom.”

Since people are living 5, 10 or even 15 years longer than a generation ago, many people are choosing to push back retirement, or, because of economic instability, not retire at all. There is a growing pool of workers in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s to be trained.

Lifelong learning also can’t simply consist of matching skills to employer demands. It needs to consist of general skills and interest-based activities in order to provide a dimension of fulfilment and purpose. The DWP’s Fuller Working Lives strategy also encouraged older people – even those approaching traditional retirement age – to consider doing an apprenticeship to boost their employment prospects.

In order to make training older workers a reality, there are uncomfortable obstacles that need to be overcome. Employers tend to accept and train younger apprentices for their perceived greater potential to return on investment. This assumption is simply a failure of imagination. In order for attitudes to be changed, incentives need to be given to employers to consider the benefits of hiring older apprentices.

We are coming to a point where a life’s education simply cannot stop at an early age. It’s up to companies like TQUK to take the reins in making sure that the education out there meets the learner’s expectations for a full and meaningful life.