Blog | 10 May, 2023

Digitalisation’s impacts on occupations and skills – the challenge for English qualifications

Ewart Keep


Across the developed and developing world the adoption of digital technologies is having an impact on the structure of occupations and careers, and consequently on the skills needed to undertake jobs and job roles. As the Digital Futures project has revealed, these impacts vary between countries, but also between occupations and organisations inside countries. Inside sectors, there is, for example, often a large and growing gap between the changing skill needs of leading-edge technology adopters and the more static skill needs of trailing-edge non-adopters.

This poses a challenge for governments and those responsible for keeping qualifications and curricula up to date. The challenge has two elements:

  1. There is the need to obtain, either through research and/or detailed consultation with employers (and in some countries social partners) an accurate picture of the extent and direction of changing skill needs. If the research capacity and/or institutional mechanisms to deliver this on a sectoral basis are absent or weak, then there will not be enough detailed information to allow the education system to respond.
  2. Having a qualifications system that is responsive, able to mediate between competing demands, and capable of crafting the required responses in qualification specification and associated curriculum design for awards at a variety of skill levels.

How does England shape up to these requirements? On research, there is a substantial level of activity focused on digitalisation and work, but relatively little of this relates to skills per se, and the efforts are highly fragmented, with limited governmental capacity to draw it together and synthesise findings. Additionally, much of the research produces snapshots, rather than the longitudinal data required to plot changes. Two large-scale surveys (the Employers’ Digital Practices at Work survey, and the Skills and Employment Survey) are in train – with EDPW due to report its findings in April, and it is to be hoped that this will allow a clearer overall picture of trends in digital skill usage.

On the second requirement, England has an unusual model for regulating, designing and delivering qualifications. Within higher education individual universities each design their own courses and awards, in some professional subjects in conjunction with the relevant professional associations, and in the case of teacher training, in line with detailed government-set specifications. Outside of universities, education and training providers rely on qualifications set by 140-plus awarding bodies. For certain types of vocational qualification – at present the new T-levels, some new sub-degree qualifications, and apprenticeship awards – the awarding body designs the qualification to a standard for that subject area set by a government quango – the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical and Technical Education (IfATE). IfATE uses ‘trailblazer’ groups of employers to design these standards. For other vocational awards, the awarding body essentially sets the standard and the content. Some awarding bodies are small, others large multi-national corporations (e.g. Pearson). Some are charities, others operate on a for-profit basis. The overall market in qualifications (as providers are free to choose between different awarding bodies when they decide which qualifications in a particular subject area they are going to offer) is regulated by a government regulator – Ofqual.

This somewhat complex and fragmented marketplace now faces the challenge posed by digitalisation and its impacts on work, occupations and skills. IfATE has recently reviewed and updated those of its standards that relate directly to digital skills and occupations, restructuring some standards and abolishing others as they have become obsolete, but it now faces the much large task of reviewing all the other standards that relate to non-digital occupations (for example paralegals, which are covered both by apprenticeships and by the new T level qualifications). Moreover, the revised standards have to be converted by awarding bodies into changes in their qualifications. For all the vocational qualifications where IfATE does not set the standards, responsibility for updating and revision rests solely with the awarding body, some of whom are relatively small and weakly resourced.
This all suggests that while England may be able to adjust those of its qualifications that relate to digital jobs, the system, or parts of it, may struggle to identify and accommodate wider changes in non-digital occupations. Indeed, at present, it is not clear that there is even a strong awareness of the challenges digitalisation is throwing up for changing skill requirements and job and career structures in non-digital occupations.

What is particularly striking is that English practice stands in marked contrast to the way these issues are being dealt with in countries such as Germany and Singapore. In Germany, the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BiBB) coordinates and oversees the updating of training standards for the extensive apprenticeship system, and has commissioned detailed research on how digitalisation is impacting on the skills and knowledge requirements in different occupations. It has also produced two new ‘occupational profile items’ on green skills/sustainability and digital skills that will be compulsory for all new occupational ‘regulations’ and for all occupational regulations that need updating in the dual system, as well as being strongly recommended for inclusion in all other regulations. These developments were agreed by policy makers, employers and the trade unions and are designed to send a strong signal that work is changing and that training needs to do so too.

In Singapore, the Workforce Skills Qualification system delivers modularised qualifications and courses that are tied back to sectoral skills frameworks, which are in turn linked to the sector’s Industrial Transformation Map. These maps plot current and expected changes to skill requirements as a result of technological change, new work practices and various forms of innovation, and are created through structured and detailed input by employers across the sector in question.

Over time it will be interesting to see whether the more systematic approach to be found in Germany and Singapore delivers clear benefits over the more fragmented and marketized model of vocational qualifications that England possesses. If it does, England may need to think about a policy response.

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